It's that time of year again — trust Hillsboro's Bag&Baggage to take their Halloween offering well beyond "Boo!" with playwright Ira Levin's thriller "Deathtrap."
Levin made his name with three iconic horror novels — "Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives" and "The Boys From Brazil" — before hitting the theatrical jackpot in 1978 with the hugely successful Broadway run of "Deathtrap." Forty years later, the play still has the power to make its audience gasp and giggle at Levin's brilliant marriage of wit and terror, and director Scott Palmer doesn't miss a trick (or treat).
The show is set in the study of a down-on-his-luck playwright, Sidney Bruhl, in Westport, Ct. The walls are covered with fierce-looking weapons, many representative of past successful stage thrillers on which Bruhl's career and fame are based. Now at the end of a long dry spell, he's living off his wife Myra's largesse and has been reduced to teaching dramatic writing to a new generation of aspiring playwrights. Bruhl is reading a manuscript sent to him by one of his students, and is dismayed by the utter perfection of the tyro's script — so much so that he even jokes about killing the student and claiming the script as his own. Myra proposes a less lethal scheme, where Sidney can offer his services as a (completely unnecessary) script doctor/collaborator and then convince the author, Clifford Anderson, that they have actually co-written the play — thus letting him in for a share of the glory, and more importantly, the gold that is sure to follow the play's publication.
From here, the plot takes off on a series of unexpected twists and murderous turns involving Sidney, Myra, Clifford, Porter Milgrim (Sidney's lawyer) and the mysterious Helga ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic who lives nearby. Levin's script is frequently hilarious — self-aware and self-deprecating — and there is a strong element of play-within-a-play as the plot develops and we are shown repeatedly that all is not what it seems to be.
Lawrence Siulagi's sly, dour and cynical Sidney Bruhl is the play's centerpiece, and perhaps most completely captures Levin's actual voice. At every turn, Siulagi manages to convince us that his urbane exterior houses at least one part psychopath, which keeps us on the edge of our seats. Morgan Cox as Myra is proper, cold and rigid (physically and morally), and her occasional overtly theatrical leaps into hysteria mirror the audience's own reactions at startling turns of events. Most interesting to me was watching Andrew Beck as Clifford. In previous shows, Beck has often played the knowing sophisticate, so it was really fun to watch him initially play the part of a likeable dummkopf, and even more fun watching his eyes as he gradually and subtly telegraphed his evolution into a significantly more knowing and complex character.
Mandana Khoshnevisan's outré psychic, Helga, provides a solid dose of comic relief, especially in Act II, where she goes over the top, but never out of control, and Eric St. Cyr provides a nice contrast in his buttoned-down, cautiously lawyerly take on Porter Milgrim.
Palmer's production team is flawless — in particular, Jim Ricks-White's lighting, Tyler Buswell's mace-, sword-, hatchet- and handcuff-filled scenic design, and the fight choreography by Signe Larsen. I have been promised that the unexpected opening night (fake) blood spatter was a one-time event, so there's no need to avoid front-row seating!
Early in Act I, Bruhl avers that Clifford's script is "so good that even a gifted director couldn't hurt it." This is abundantly true in the case of the current production, and it makes a perfect way to honor and welcome the scariest season of the year.
Bag&Baggage's "Deathtrap" is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through Oct. 31, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees, and special pre-Halloween shows at 7:30 on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Oct. 29, Oct. 30, and Oct. 31.
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