Whodunit this time?
On cold, gray winter days, all I want to do is bundle up and watch a good murder mystery. And when I went to see Reno Little Theater’s rehearsal performance of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, that’s exactly the kind of day it was. Which may be why I liked it so much—it just hit the spot.
I remembered the movie by the same name, released in 1982, starring Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon and Christopher Reeve. I’ve seen it many times and love it, and I watched this Reno Little Theater production expecting a duplicate. But while I thoroughly enjoyed this take on Deathtrap, this is not the same old thing. Sam Coleman makes his directorial debut with Deathtrap. He clearly knows and loves the theater and this play.
Deathtrap has two acts, five characters and only one set. It relies wholly on a really good plot. It’s the story of Sidney Bruhl, played by Michael Peters. Sidney is a once-successful playwright who hasn’t had a hit in 18 years. As he says, “Nothing recedes more quickly than success.” His wife, Myra (Kristen Davis-Coelho), is well-meaning but high-strung and supports her “receded” husband with her family’s money. Sidney is hungry for a good idea when one falls in his lap.
Clifford Anderson (Cliff), played by Brian Barney, is a young would-be playwright who once attended Bruhl’s seminar on murder-mystery writing. The ambitious lad sends a copy of his first play, Deathtrap, to Sidney for review. Sidney immediately sees dollar signs, and the intrigue and elaborate plot twists ensue. Throw in a meddling psychic German neighbor (April Axton-Ruggiero) and an aging family attorney (John Coney), and you have yourself a mystery.
Peters as Bruhl is at once sympathetic, frightening, funny and downright evil. His performance is remarkably on and contrasts well to Davis-Coelho’s Myra, who is at times so jittery, shrill and worrisome, you feel like giving her a good smack. Whether Coleman intended this portrayal or not, it works when you see how things end, which I can’t tell you about. Sorry.
Barney’s characterization of Cliff is reminiscent of Christopher Reeve’s version of 20 years ago. Cliff is affable and charming, yet can turn on you in a second. But doggone it, you just like him.
In much the same way, you will like Axton-Ruggiero as the comedic Helga ten Dorp, the bizarre German psychic who lives next door. You may be interested and surprised to learn that Axton-Ruggiero is actor and composer Hoyt Axton’s daughter. Her German accent will make you laugh, and she shows up just in time to add even more confusion to the characters’ lives and more complexity to the plot.
Yes, there are murder scenes in Deathtrap—really intense, loud, bloody ones with lots of screaming and red faces. Just like a murder mystery should have. The ending of this one, I warn you, is very different but no less fun than the movie version. A word of advice: Pay close attention. There are so many plot twists in Deathtrap, a trip to the bathroom might ruin things for you.