A play-within-a-play, a comedy and a thriller, individually, are all standard forms of theater easily accepted by audiences today. But can they successfully be combined into a single entertaining production? The answer is yes, and that production is Deathtrap, currently running at the Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater.
Deathtrap is considered a “play-within-a-play” and also was the longest running comedic thriller on Broadway. Sidney Bruhl was,at one point, a successful playwright, but has recently produced a series of flops, resulting in financial disappointments for Sidney and his wife, Myra. When Sidney receives a stunning play, also entitled Deathtrap, from one of his writing students, Clifford, Sidney forms a plan to murder Clifford so he can claim the successful play as his own. However, the plot thickens and the thriller provides many twists and turns throughout the evening.
In a show featuring playwrights as the main characters, many of the jokes and one-liners reference theater and show business and there are numerous tongue-in-cheek references to some of the absurdities involved in theatrical performances. The script by Ira Levin is expertly written and uses the play-within-a-play framing device to great ironic use.
The incredible writing is strengthened even more by some excellent direction from Shawn R. Martin. As a comedic thriller, the show walks a fine-line between suspenseful and superficial, and Martin expertly balances the perfect amount of tension and comedic relief.
As the main character, playwright Sidney Bruhl, Steve Steele carries the majority of the stage time and plot development, and gives an absolutely stunning performance. He is naturally at ease on stage and effortlessly quips the majority of the funniest one-liners and punch lines to many of the jokes. His facial expressions are priceless, physical comedy bits are more than laugh-out-loud funny and his timing is superb.
J.D. Wine gives a very nuanced performance as writing student and younger playwright, Clifford Anderson. He enters as a wholesome, eager, inexperienced student and gradually shows a fantastic evolution in his character. Steele and Wine display an exceptional contrast in their characters while onstage together.
As Sidney’s wife, Myra Bruhl, Diana Abrecht is very refined and wholesome, though she sometimes seemed a little awkward onstage while interacting with others. Her facial expressions and hysterical fits were outstanding.
In a scene-stealing turn as Helga Ten Dorp, Allison Banzhoff is delightfully eccentric as the next-door-neighbor and psychic. Banzhoff maintains a spot-on accent and her vocal inflections are hilarious.
Shawn R. Martin is dignified and proper in a brief appearance as Sidney’s lawyer, Porter Milgrim. Martin displays some deadpan comedic moments to great effect.
The technical elements of Deathtrap enhance the overall suspense of the murder mystery. The set, designed by Jim and Sue Eckel, is a single unit piece – Sidney Bruhl’s office. The office features several impressive functions, such as a “working” onstage fireplace and a wall of weapons ranging from guns to knives to axes, many of which are removable from the set for functions in the show.
Similarly, costumes in the show, designed by Barbie Gross, are fashionable and functional for the highly physical sequences and evoke the feel of Northeastern fashions in the 1970s and 198s, using a mainly brown, khaki and red color palette. Abrecht’s red dress in the opening scene was particularly eye-catching with bold period-appropriate designs.
Lighting by Travis Fouche is very well-designed, especially for the low-light sequences when the power went out in the story, so action supposedly happening in the dark was actually happening on a lower-lit stage to allow the audience to comfortably see the action.
As Deathtrap is a murder mystery, there are several violent scenes, and the fight choreography by Rennes Carbaugh is exceptional. The fight scenes are executed incredibly well with the limited space available and give a fantastic illusion of danger without leaving the audience worrying that the actors are in any actual danger. The various special effects used throughout the production are equally as impressive and realistic.
For both a suspenseful and side-splitting funny evening of theater, be sure to catch Deathtrap at the Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
Deathtrap plays through February 20, 2016 at the Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater – 44 North Potomac Street. in Hagerstown, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301)739-7469, or purchase them online.