There’s an inherent challenge in writing a review of a comedic thriller – you can’t say a lot about the plot because you don’t want to spoil anything for those who’ve never seen the show. So, spoiler alert! I’m not going to do that; it’s safe to keep reading.
That’s even the case for Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” a play nominated for four Tony Awards that ran on Broadway for almost 1,800 performances in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and spawned a 1982 film version with Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon.
Theatre 121′s “Deathtrap” – the first full live-stage production at the Woodstock Opera House since the pandemic-shortened run of “Matilda” in March 2020 – contains all the laughs and twists of Levin’s creative script, along with a colorful set and talented five-member cast. Plus, if you count yourself among those leery of attending live productions because of the coronavirus, Theatre 121 has instituted COVID-19 protocols that should make you breathe easier, albeit while wearing a mask.
As “Deathtrap” opens, we see the brightly colored 1978 Westport, Connecticut, study of Sidney Bruhl (Matthew Schufreider), a playwright whose biggest Broadway hit, “The Murder Game,” was 18 years ago, several subsequent flops diminishing his self-confidence and limiting his ability to help him and his wife, Myra, in paying for their current lifestyle. With props, play posters and weapons (even a bear head holding a mace from its mouth) prominently displayed on the study walls, it’s clearly a room Sidney has decorated to remind him of his glory days. (Side note: kudos to props technicians Elaine Cashmore and Tracey Lanman; with many of the displayed items being mentioned in the script, they succeeded in rising to the challenge.)
Sidney tells Myra (Emily Thompson) that a student from a playwriting seminar he led months earlier has sent him an original, never-produced play he’s written, and Sidney’s positive it’ll be a box-office smash. While Myra encourages her husband to offer advice and to collaborate with Clifford Anderson (Ethan Sherman) on his play, called “Deathtrap,” Sidney muses that it would be even more profitable if he could kill Clifford and pass the play off as his own creation. Convincing Clifford to come to the house to discuss the play isn’t difficult, but is Sidney truly capable of murder? Maybe.
At the Saturday night performance I attended, the audience was small but appreciative, and the applause after the final curtain was well-deserved by Schufreider, Thompson and Sherman, as well as Nicole Lapas (as a celebrated Dutch psychic who has moved in nearby) and Frank Dello (as Sidney’s attorney and friend). All five brought their characters to life, with Lapas’ Helga ten Dorp providing comic relief for some of the tenser moments, and Dello being a much needed voice-of-reason sounding board for Sidney.
What took me out of the story at this particular performance and production? First, Sherman’s microphone kept cutting out at various times throughout acts I and II; with a cast of only five, Theatre 121 should have enough always-functioning microphones, especially for its leads. Second, one of the props malfunctioned at the time of an important plot twist.
My final concern is that director Mike Frale made the choice of casting talented, but mostly young, actors. There should be a clear age difference between the seasoned Sidney – remember that 18-year gap after “The Murder Game” – and the college-age Clifford. Despite some streaks of gray in Schufreider’s hair, and costuming choices that would make sense for a playwright in his 40s or 50s, this Sidney and Clifford appear closer to being peers than to being a potential mentor and mentee.
Those concerns aside, Theatre 121 is to be commended for two hours of PG-13 escapism, and for caring enough about its patrons to have COVID protocols. As stated on the group’s website: “guests to the Woodstock Opera House over the age of 12 will be required to provide proof of full vaccination status or an appropriate negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours to attend performances … In addition, Theatre 121 will require all patrons, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks for all performances and events until further notice. Masks should properly cover the nose and mouth, and be worn the entire duration of your visit.” When my wife and I – both of us masked – were met on the steps outside the Opera House, we showed our vaccination cards and were graciously welcomed inside.
So if you’ve had your shot, give “Deathtrap” a shot. Local live theater productions, especially thrillers, always need plenty of bodies.
• Paul Lockwood is an enthusiastic singer, frequent local theater actor (including Theatre 121′s Storybook Players repertory group), Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, columnist and past president of TownSquare Players.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Deathtrap” by Theatre 121
WHERE: Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., Woodstock
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 16, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 17
COST: $10 to $26
INFORMATION: 815-338-5300, www.woodstockoperahouse.com/operahouse