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A SCRIPT TO KILL FOR: ‘Deathtrap’ is full of twists, turns and lots of laughs

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Tony Rivenbark has a fabulous season planned for the Cube Theatre Project in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre at Thalian Hall. The first offering is Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” directed by Shane Fernando. Many people are familiar with the 1982 screen adaptation starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. But the stage show is enduringly delightful with twists, turns and lots of laughs.

Sidney Bruhl (Bryan Putnam) is a once-famous, now-washed-up playwright, who lives off his wife’s money in rural New England. Myra (Christy Grantham) is loving, supportive and hoping Sidney produces a hit soon. He needs one—not just for the money but for his self-esteem. Myra is getting worried. Into their lives arrives a script written by Clifford Anderson (Brendan Carter), who took a playwriting seminar from Sidney the year before. Titled “Deathtrap,” it is perfect and Sidney is convinced it will run for years. And so he ponders: Would anyone notice if he killed Clifford and put forward the play as his own? He muses aloud to a shocked Myra. In an effort to distract Sidney from his awful proposal, Myra recounts meeting their new neighbor Helga Tendorp (Ashley Grantham), a Dutch psychic making her rounds to talk shows.

Putnam has such a dry sense of humor and acerbic delivery, audiences may worry about getting a paper cut from one of his jokes. It makes us really question his motivation and humanity. I really wanted to believe he wouldn’t do it—but maybe he could or would? Putnam revels in letting the audience linger with this question, which is mirrored in Myra’s uncertainty.

If Grantham didn’t question it deep down in her soul, we wouldn’t truly wonder. But she does; therefore, so we do. It is odd to see such a beautiful and glamorous woman as Grantham as a middle-aged frump who embroiders and wears spectacles. But she convinces us she is a settled 1970’s housewife with few ambitions of her own.

Of course, it is odder to see her surrounded by so many hand weapons: guns, daggers, crossbows, axes, etc. But these are mementos from Sidney’s shows—all of which were thrillers and therefore involved murder and mayhem. So are they just harmless reminders? Actually, the deaths in “Deathtrap” are incredibly well done, beginning with the blood trickling form the garrote. It looks very realistic—frighteningly so.

For all the back and forth of a well-matched married couple that Grantham and Putnam have, Carter’s Clifford really comes off beautifully as a naïve and sweet foil to Putnam’s jaded sophistication. There he is, just like Ransom in “Out of the Silent Planet,” blithely telling them no one knows where he is or expects him back. The perfect mark. Perhaps what makes Carter’s Clifford so interesting is how accurately he plays a con man. He doesn’t telegraph the con; he wins folks over with smiles, charm and the sense that they are smarter than him. So when we do catch glimpses of the lurking evil beneath the surface, it is all the more startling and distressing. At every turn, he makes us want to have sympathy for him. Even when the well-meaning lawyer friend Porter Pilgrim (Eric Robinson) seems to question Cliff’s trustworthiness, we still want to sympathize with Cliff. Maybe it is just the stuffy, distrustful-but-efficient old-lawyer type that has been the face of authority so long, our inborn desire to side with the underdog feels natural.

The comic relief and unquestioned audience favorite is Grantham’s Helga Tendorp. There is no moment that could possibly be made more over-the-top. There is no joke that could be milked for more laughs. And there is the accent. Ahh, the accent. Yah, the accent.

Fernando has a focused eye for visual detail. He is a man who can spend a week looking for the right pen set for a character’s desk. I can just imagine Fernando and set designer Gary Ralph Smith working on this incredibly detailed working set. They must have been like kids in a candy store, dotting each “i”  and crossing every “t,” right down to the perfect period. The show is set in the 1970s; typewriters and carbon copies feature heavily into the plot. The set really looks like my father’s study, mated with Arthur Miller’s Connecticut home. Roof beams jut out toward the audience, stairs are narrow and winding, and the furniture is tasteful, functional and carefully selected. Isabel Zermani’s costume design is the finishing touch for bringing the period into focus. It makes it realistic without bludgeoning the point with leisure suits for men and halter-top bodysuits for women. Instead, she goes with tasteful, everyday clothes that fit a certain color scheme cut out of the ‘70s.    

Ira Levin is an interesting writer.  Though he is probably most famous for “Rosemary’s Baby,” he also wrote “The Stepford Wives” and the Sharon Stone vehicle “Sliver.” Though, for North Carolina audiences, it might be interesting to note one of his early plays was “No Time For Sergeants,” the breakout role that launched Andy Griffith from “The Lost Colony” to national recognition.

“Deathtrap” is a very funny play that manages to find hairpin-plot twist after hairpin-plot twist. This talented cast play each moment and don’t give anything away, so each surprise is more thrilling than the last. For a truly enjoyable night of theatre, “Deathtrap” is worth every penny.

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