Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Written in 1978, Deathtrap ran on Broadway for almost four years and set a record that it still holds as the longest running comedy thriller. This play within a play focuses on Sydney Bruhl, a middle aged playwright, who has only written a series of flop plays since his one-hit thriller The Murder Game, 18 years previous. He and his wife Myra are suffering financially due to Sydney's writer's block and he has recently received the manuscript of a thriller play from a young writer, Clifford Anderson, who was in Sydney's university playwriting seminar. Telling Myra that it is a certain hit that needs little tweaking, Sydney invites Clifford over with the plan to tell Clifford that his play is a good idea but needs a lot of work and that he will partner with him on it, thus ensuring he will see some profits from the play. Sydney discovers that no one else knows about the play and there is only one other copy of it, which Clifford is bringing with him. This leads Sydney to mention to Myra that, with the dry period he's experiencing, it might make sense to kill Clifford, steal his sure-fire hit, and claim it as his own. But is Sydney serious? If so, can he go through with his plan? Levin's play has a clean setup with the distribution of facts clearly and smartly doled out like bread crumbs on a path. But almost nothing is exactly as it seems, with twists and turns aplenty along with several moments of humor perfectly set within the suspense.
Susan St. John knows how to make this high-tension drama, full of darkness and deceit, succeed with a smart cast, tight pacing, and a small but clever set design. Scott Hyder has a firm grasp on the role of Sydney, delivering the nuance-filled dialogue with a wickedly twisted sense of humor. As Clifford, Danniel Giraldo, at just 19, holds his own against Hyder with the right amount of eagerness and energy that a young playwright would exhibit when meeting his idol. He also instills a big jolt of terror in several scenes that comes across as both shocking and, under St. John's clear direction, also extremely realistic.
Debra Lyman does well in portraying Myra's constant hovering, with her interruptions especially annoying to Sydney, while Petey Swartz is appropriately wacky, but not over the top, as the psychic Helga ten Dorp who lives close by and seems to show up at Sydney and Myra's house to warn them at the most inopportune times. As Porter Milgrim, Sydney's lawyer, Mitch Etter is even-measured and matter of fact in his delivery, which works well to balance the louder personalities in the play.
Bryan Rosen's set and Justin McBride's prop designs create a fantastic backdrop for the play to unfold in front of, with walls adorned with Sydney's collection of weapons of every shape and sizeguns, knives, handcuffs and even a battle-axe. The intimacy of the Farnsworth Studio at the Mesa Arts Center also means that the shocking moments of deception play out just a few feet in front of the audience, which adds an extra layer of intensity to the mayhem. Lighting designer Cody Soper creates some realistic stage imagery, especially for the nighttime scenes, though the lighting effects during the storm sequence could be ratcheted up a bit to heighten the intensity. Julie Peterson's costumes are evocative of the period, while the sound design from Alex and Susan St. John includes some creepy music cues and thunder effects and Monique Iniguez's special effects designs are shockingly lifelike.
With a constantly changing plot, Deathtrap is a dark, sinister and terrifying play that leaves the audience wondering just what will happen next. The abundance of laughs and screams, realistic and chilling twists, and a very fitting conclusion makes for a fun evening of murder and mayhem. St. John and her cast know how build the suspense to create a believably frightening production.
Deathtrap runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through January 24th, 2016, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.
Director: Susan St. John