By Bill Hirschman
Back in 1978 when the word “meta” didn’t have its current ubiquity as a pop culture definition of “something referring to itself,” Ira Levin’s ingenious comedy-thriller Deathtrap became the ultimate example of what would eventually become known as meta-theater.
From its opening lines – a playwright intoning “Deathtrap, a thriller in two acts, one set, five characters” referring to a script in his hands not Levin’s play – the playwright mixed humor and suspense so skillfully that he simultaneously teased and honored the genre that reached its apex with Sleuth.
Miami Stage Door’s first season closer is a serviceable if not outstanding edition that understands Levin’s black comedy, appreciates his Swiss watchmaker’s plotting and benefits from a solid performance by Kevin Reilley as a thriller playwright contemplating murder as the means of a comeback.
Deathtrap opens with washed-up Sidney Bruhl bemoaning to his wife Myra that he has received a can’t-miss script Deathtrap from Clifford Anderson, a student seeking his advice. With a mind accustomed to inventing the logistics of dark deeds, Bruhl sees how he can invite Anderson to his writing den for a conference, murder the unknown author and claim the play as his own. Myra is horrified as she watches her husband seduced by the gelling plan. Bruhl indeed invites Anderson for a visit to his lair whose walls are lined with a score of medieval and modern instruments of death. The rollercoaster crests over its first peak and we’re off.
Other than a few dated references, Levin’s script remains a brilliantly crafted and slyly knowing piece of theatrical cabinetry. The ensuing plot regularly corkscrews in on itself with reversals, but to reveal much more is to sabotage the audience’s delights in the twists. If you don’t know what’s coming, this marvel still holds up – as the gasps from Sunday’s audience confirmed.
Levin, who died in 2007, was master of disparate genres: He wrote the novel, playscript and/or screenplays for No Time For Sergeants, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives and the local hit play Cantorial. What they all share with Deathtrap is a sardonic sense of humor.
At one point, Bruhl daydreams about bashing in Anderson’s brains with a mace on his wall: “What’s the point of owning a mace if you don’t use it once in a while?” Or when Myra suggests just producing Anderson’s play, Bruhl answers, “Darling, I may be devious and underhanded enough to be a murderer, but not, I think, to be a Broadway producer.”
This production could use a little more topspin under the direction of Clayton Phillips, the production manager for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and an experienced director of musicals judging by his bio. He leads his cast in an adequate rendition, but this iteration doesn’t maximize the suspense or comedy that this play is capable of delivering.
The pace flagged on occasion Sunday afternoon, but that could have been collateral damage from playing to an audience who gave the actors little laughs or feedback to fuel their performance.
The best thing about this production is that it finally gives veteran local actor Kevin Reilley a long-overdue role that is a perfect fit for his talents. With a pointed beard, arched eyebrows and a wicked gleam as he hatches his plot, the lean and hungry Reilley has a slightly Satanic yet hangdog expression as he glowers at the unfair vagaries of Fate. He flavors Levin’s bon mots with just the right seasoning of frustrated bile.
Handsome Clay Cartland (so good in last month’s reading of tick tick… Boom for Outre Theatre) invests Anderson with the slightly bizarre enthusiasm that makes some of the play’s less likely twists completely credible, showing the acting chops that made his performance as a demented industrialist the standout in Promethean Theatre’s Song of the Living Dead . His blue eyes shine with anticipation as he heedlessly careens down a path of self-destruction.
Less satisfying was Elizabeth Sackett’s Myra who starts off the play unremarkably bland, thereby robbing the first scene of crucial energy. Her performance deepens as Myra’s growing anxiety and dread give the actress something to play with.
Paula Sackett works hard to create the one out-and-out farcical character, a frowsy Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp, whose visits to the manse threaten Bruhl’s plans. But inexplicably, Sackett just can’t make Helga land as the delightfully daffy fly-in-the-ointment that Levin penned. Glen Lawrence portrays Bruhl’s stolid solicitor with appropriate stuffiness.
It’s not the best Deathtrap you’ve seen (or will see if this is your first time), but it works well enough to be worth a visit. And credit Stage Door for being one of the few companies left in South Florida willing to mount this kind of tired businessman warhorse that combined sheer craft with sheer entertainment.
Deathtrap runs through July 1 at Miami Beach Stage Door at the Byron Carlyle Theatre, 500 71st Street. For tickets and information, call (954) 344-7765 or visit www.stagedoortheatre.com.