Deathtrap gets bogged down in the details

Plotting the perfect crime: Michael Booth (front), Steve Hendrickson, and Cheryl Willis
Michal Daniel

Ira Levin may be best known for his scary novels — from Rosemary's Baby to The Stepford Wives to The Boys From Brazil — but he also made his name onstage. By far his most successful play commercially was 1978's Deathtrap, in which most of the trappings of a dramatic play are stripped away to leave just the essentials: a perfect crime and the characters who try to pull it off.

Everything in the play is there as a service to the tightly wound plot. The characters rarely rise above the level of ciphers. The set, down to the wall of knives, axes, guns, and other implements of death, doesn't so much tell us about the characters as it gives them ready-made objects for the engine of the plot.

The recently opened Jungle Theater production gets caught in this machinery, never finding the clarity needed to carry the material home. There are some great moments, and occasional sharp ones, but the show too often just sits there onstage.

The action centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl (Steven Hendrickson), who caught lightning in a jar decades before with his play The Murder Game but has been stuck in a rut ever since. Then in the mail comes a play from a young upstart, Clifford (Michael Booth), which has everything Sidney's plays have been missing for years.

The play, called Deathtrap, sets our story into motion. Sydney invites the younger playwright to his home, worrying his weak-hearted wife, Myra (Cheryl Willis). The "will he or won't he" tension fuels the first act, leading to a terrific pair of scares, and it reveals a completely different plot beyond the one we thought we were watching.

The second act takes these turns and moves into deeper layers. It's hard to write about them without revealing the Act One shocks, but it's safe to say that Sydney's plot is threatened on multiple sides — especially from busybody psychic Helga ten Dorp (Claudia Wilkens).

Director Bain Boehlke loves stage thrillers, and you can sense that throughout this handsome production. His set design is precise and packed with detail, all the way down to the wall filled with Sydney's signature collection, where a set of handcuffs, a garrote, battle ax, and a crossbow all play some part in the proceedings.

Yet beyond the setting, Deathtrap lags. Levin doesn't build a lot of sympathy for any of the characters. That's not a death knell for a play, but the audience needs more to carry us along. The key set pieces come off well, but the stretches where the plot is set up don't carry nearly enough drama, intensity, or humor (take your pick) to bridge the gaps between the fun action.

Hendrickson and Booth carry the bulk of the load here. While nothing is wrong with their individual performances, the spark needed between their characters is missing. There is a lot of back-and-forth between Sydney and Clifford as the play unfolds, but we never get a sense of the layers Levin put into their relationship. The final reveal doesn't reveal much of anything, except that neither of them are folks you would really want to invite into your home.

Willis doesn't have much to do except look panic-stricken and frightened by her husband's actions, while Terry Hempleman, as lawyer Porter Milgrim, shows up mainly to provide some plot coupons for the show to cash in later on.

That leaves Wilkens as the heavily accented ten Dorp. The character is absolutely mad — a force of nature who rolls in a few times during the play. She has her own plot points to drop off, but the character is a lot more fun than anyone else here. Wilkens relishes every moment she has onstage, as we are never sure if the character is truly talented in the psychic arts or just a very good huckster.

Throughout the play, Sydney claims to be working on a play about ten Dorp. After watching Deathtrap, I'm left wondering if that wouldn't have been a better choice.

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