Sidney is a writer of stage thrillers whose greatest success is eighteen years behind him. Now Clifford, a new protégé, has sent Sidney a script for his new play, Deathtrap, "a thriller in two acts, with one set and five characters"just like Levin's Deathtrap. (That line sets the tone in the play's first moments; Levin's play is full of self-mocking references and theatrical in-jokes.) Sidney sees an opportunity to steal the credit for Clifford's play and restore his own reputation in the process, but Sidney's increasingly nervous wife Myra wants no part of it. Soon the audience learns that Sidney's scheme is even more sinister than it seems, and that's before the first of many plot twists. Levin changes Sidney's target and motives repeatedly; there's no angle, and no crime, he won't consider to get what he wants.
Robert Smythe is a lot of fun as Sidney, a man continually reminding the world of his own superiority. He's constantly preening, mocking his antagonist's voice and actions, even when there's no one around to see him. The likable Andrew Parcell keeps pace as Clifford, whose clean-cut exterior and naïve manner conceal a mind that may be almost as busy as Sidney's. And Betty Lou Roselle has a nice comic turn as a nosy neighbor whose psychic gifts nearly undermine Sidney's plot.
Director Penelope Reed wisely keeps the action in the 1970s; the dated references to typewriters, carbon copies and David Merrick add to the charm. There's a delightful snap in the interactions between the two leads. The walls of Zoran Kovcic's set are filled with daggers, guns, and other weapons used in Sidney's plays, and you can be sure that these weapons will be put to use; as Sidney says, "What's the point in owning a mace if you don't use it?" But Kovcic errs in angling the left side wall away from the audience, hiding the weapons on it. When a character pulls a weapon off that wall in the last five minutes, it was a shock to me because I hadn't been able to see that weapon from my aisle seat. The playwright played fair with the audience, but the set design here doesn't.
Deathtrap starts feeling repetitive in act two, which is padded with twists that seem to be added just for the sake of showing off. But for the most part, Levin's ingenuity is quite satisfying. Deathtrap pretends to be above what Sidney calls the "glib plotting" and "superficial characters" of most stage thrillers (like the Agatha Christie plays that are a Hedgerow mainstay) while indulging in those very same trappings. It surprises its viewers without making them feel stupid. And it does it all with a wink and a smile.
Deathtrap runs through September 23, 2012, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices are $25 to $32, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at www.hedgerowtheatre.org or in person at the box office.