Ira Levin knows how to spin a yarn. The author of novels The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, he also wrote Deathtrap, the yummy confection of a theatrical thriller playing at the Alley Theatre. Directed by James Black with irreverent glee, this walk on the dark side offers all the murder and mystery we've come to expect from the Alley's Summer Chills offerings. But Black's version is more than deadly -- it's also deliciously funny and chock-full of delightful surprises.
The story takes place in the stately workroom of Sidney Bruhl (Todd Waite), a once-successful playwright whose career has been in a downward spiral as of late. He writes murder mysteries, but he hasn't come up with a successful thriller in a long time. To make matters more desperate, Bruhl's wealthy wife, Myra (Elizabeth Heflin), is just about to run out of money herself, or so she tells her husband. The couple, who are used to living large in their swanky Connecticut digs, are about to run into some hard times -- that is, if Bruhl doesn't come up with a killer idea for a play. As luck would have it, one arrives in the mail in the form of a script called Deathtrap, written by a fellow named Clifford Anderson (Ty Mayberry), one of Bruhl's former creative-writing students. In a scene crafted with terrifying precision, Bruhl concocts a brutal way to get his career back on track. If no other copies of Anderson's script exist, he could kill Anderson and claim the can't-miss play as his own. Myra is horrified, of course. But that doesn't stop her husband from ringing up his former student and suggesting he take the train out so the two can "discuss" his work.
Levin's ingenious setup works on multiple levels. For one, he gets to make coy insider jokes about the theater. Bruhl exclaims that Anderson's script is so good, a director couldn't hurt it. Two, Levin gets lots of mileage out of the fact that Bruhl writes thrillers. Kevin Rigdon's manly brown set is filled with props from Bruhl's past shows: Pistols, knives and crossbows hang on the walls and furniture. The ghoulish props come in handy in the later scenes. And three, as we learn more about the so-called perfect play within the play, we see more delightfully despicable aspects of Levin's characters.
The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421.
Through July 10. $19.
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Once pretty-boy Anderson arrives on the scene, Myra refuses to leave her husband alone with the young writer. She thinks she can keep Bruhl on the up and up, but he still goes to great lengths to find out if anybody else has seen the jewel of a script, and once he finishes with his questions well let's just say somebody's death is imminent. Still, the smart and often funny plot provides a real roller coaster of unexpected twists. The opening-night audience was gasping at the wild reversals, then giggling in delight at the way Levin surprised them again and again.
As ingenious as the plot is, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun without the Alley's wicked cast. And leading the way are Waite as the murder-minded, fussbudget Bruhl and Heflin as his nervous-Nellie wife. The two work like perfectly synchronized clocks as they move around Mayberry's innocent-looking Anderson, creating spooky tension even as they spark hoots of laughter. Bruhl draws closer and closer to his kill, and Myra keeps jumping in to stop him. Heflin's eyes get impossibly round as she works to keep her desperate husband in check. In later scenes, Waite makes the perfect clown. Under Black's direction, the actor creates some fabulous physical humor, especially in one scene involving a locked desk and a lost key.
Mayberry is terrific, too. His Anderson is a charming prince of a dark-haired young man, but there's something a little unsettling sparkling in those beautiful blue eyes. That glint is just unnerving enough to make the whole story tilt a off center every time he walks on stage, especially when you think you've got the whole thing figured out.
It would be unfair to say any more, as more than half the fun is in not knowing what comes next. Let's just leave with it with this: Levin's great plot and the Alley's enormously likable cast make Deathtrap everything summer theater ought to be -- a whip of a surprise that will leave you grinning all the way out to your car.