“Deathtrap,” Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, through April 12, $25-$44, 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org
“One set, five characters, a juicy murder in Act 1 and it's highly commercial!” exults playwright Sidney Bruhl of a script he holds. Assured it will produce a surefire Broadway hit, he derisively adds, “Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”
So begins Pioneer Theatre Company’s highly entertaining production of “Deathtrap.”
Not coincidentally, the play the Bruhl character is in requires one set, has five characters and contains a juicy murder in Act 1. And it’s also titled “Deathtrap.” (Plus, deathtrap is the name of a plot device the play employs.)
But there’s a glitch before the play is a success: The fictional script is not Bruhl’s. It was written by a young protégé, Clifford Anderson. It’s been 18 years since Bruhl has had a hit, and he’s been christened “Sidney ‘four flops’ Bruhl” after his single hit thriller. Bruhl wants nothing more than to purloin the work, burning the title page in the fireplace of his Connecticut home and typing a new page with his own name under the title on his Smith-Corona (which is a manual typewriter, and it’s necessary to know this ancient instrument to follow a nice comic bit).
Not a play-within-a-play but a writing-of-a-play-within-a-play, “Deathtrap” was scripted by the masterful Ira Levin, whose objectives were to confound expectations, frequently mislead the audience and abruptly startle people out of their seats.
Levin may not be immediately recognized as a playwright, but describe him as the novelist behind “The Stepford Wives,” “A Kiss Before Dying,” “The Boys from Brazil” and “Rosemary’s Baby” (a work he regrets that led to “The Exorcist” and similar horror fests), and his name is more familiar.
If you need a further example of his capability, Stephen King has hailed Levin as “the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels; he makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores.” Additionally, his “Deathtrap” became Broadway's longest-running comedy-thriller.
With director May Adrales at the helm, PTC has smartly engineered this “Deathtrap” to deliver a theater thrill ride.
Thom Sesma plays the tapped-out playwright and is splendid in the role and is an ideal actor to portray Bruhl. His Bruhl is devious, self-absorbed, bitterly disillusioned and witty. Sesma's sardonic line deliveries don’t telegraph the humor, but it is gleefully messengered to audiences. Sesma also has experience in musical theater, and he inserts merriment by cavorting around the room when searching for a hidden key to the onstage partner desk, with the antics in time with “The Marriage of Figaro” LP heard on a record player.
Devin Norik confidently takes on the inexperienced scribe character. Anderson must be consumed by his writing and be a guileless (but is he?) companion to Bruhl. His characterization must hint at an unexpected twist, but he slightly overplayed one trait, and it’s hard to tell if this was a result of following direction or an aspect he couldn’t conceal.
Gayton Scott does a fine job playing Myra, Bruhl’s frustrated wife, and Craig Bockborn takes on the nearly inessential role of his stuffy lawyer, Porter Milgrim.
The fifth character is a role every comic actress dreams to play. Kymberly Mellen robustly portrays the easily confused Dutch psychic, Helga Ten Dorp, and she is delightfully ditzy. The part is often overplayed, making the character farcical. In Mellen’s hands, it's a hilarious tour de force performance.
Staging elements enhance the production, including Daniel Zimmerman’s detailed post-and-beam Westport writer’s den, accentuated with a grisly array of murder weapons, and precise costuming by Brenda Van der Wiel (love those Frye boots!). Great work is seen in Karl E. Haas’ spot-on lighting and Joshua C. Hight’s sound that highlight the mystery and re-create storm sequences — adding to the perfect storm of production work.
Younger theatergoers will need explanations for the rotary telephone, as well as for references to “The Merv Griffin Show” and the Amazing Kreskin, for this play, which is set in 1978, the same year it premiered — and Wikipedia may be necessary for “The Magic Show.”
Content advisory: Discreet bloody mayhem and mild objectionable exclamations.