Suspense is a fine tool to sharpen any theatrical thriller. And you’ll find plenty of it along with a healthy dose of comedy in the Prince George’s Little Theatre’s production of Deathtrap. The sharp, witty play written by Ira Levin keeps the audience alert with plot twists galore, well crafted stock characters and carefully structured moments of comedy amid all of the murderous mystery. Directed by Gayle Negri, this particular production takes the comedy to the next level with several clever references to the 1982 film of the same title, dropping Michael Cane – the star of said film – into reference once or twice for a few added laughs.
Scenic Designer Dan Lavanga does not disappoint with his transference of page to production as much of the setting is outlined in the play quite specifically. Lavanga creates the working study of Sidney Bruhl like one of the double-bladed weapons that are hanging on the wall; a warm and inviting work space with dark and mysterious undertones that hint all is not quite as it seems. The antique collection of torture devices and murder weapons looks particularly intriguing, mounted in a meticulous pattern upon the wall, creating a sense of unease for some characters while creating a sense of familiarity for others.
Some of the plays most suspenseful moments actually build and blossom because of Sound Designer Den Giblin and Lighting Designer Garrett Hyde. Giblin and Hyde work together to create the perfect storm raging outside the house on the night of one of the many murders with blinding flashes of bright lighting that echo through the windows and then several seconds pause before the raging clap of thunder. This is a gradual build with the thunder chasing the lightning closer and closer until Giblin finally adds in a cacophony of rain, completing the effect of the raging storm. Hyde synchs the lighting with believable ease, making all of the fixtures dim and flicker when the storm is particularly violent, making the atmosphere palpable, the emotions of the storm lively and present in the room.
While the play is written to be zingy and witty and the special effects help to preserve that sense of thrilling suspense, the acting on a few planes falls short. It might have been a case of opening night jitters for some as Sidney Bruhl (Michael N. Dunlop) seemed to fumble over many of his lines a fair bit. This however wasn’t quite as detracting from the show as it might seem as Dunlop tried to play this off, trying to make his character a feeble old-minded man who would naturally forget what he was saying and stammer through his dialogue with others. Clifford Anderson (Kristofer Northrup) did not miss a line, but was often racing through them so quickly you could only catch bits and pieces of what was being said.
Director Gayle Negri does make excellent use of the space for her actors. The cozy study does not fall victim to having characters always crowded in one location nor does there appear to be much aimless wandering or purposeless prop touching. Negri, however, has some problems when guiding her actors through their comic execution. The lines are woven into the play but the delivery, particularly from Dunlop, seems to not hit the mark in many places. Again this may be case of opening night jitters as some of these comic lines were stumbled over or rushed through rather than delivered with perfect timing. There is, however, excellent pacing to the show. Dunlop’s constant fumbling and Northrup’s rapid pace seem to balance each other out making the play move along just as it should. When Dunlop takes to the phone his conversation is believable, his pauses well placed to allow the audience to believe there might actually be another person on the other side.
The comic relief comes from Helga ten Dorp (Millie Ferrara) the ESP psychic who can predict murders. From the moment Ferrara takes the stage the audience is splitting their sides with laughter. She is flighty, loony and convinced of her predictions, pausing as if possessed and dipping into a trance like state when one hits her, and she makes a compelling case with Porter Milgrim (Joseph Mariano) towards the end of the show. Mariano and Ferrara have a great scene where the discovery in their eyes and voices reach over the top to entertain the audience. Ferrara carries the comedy of the show on her back with her witty moments and well spoken comic lines. So if you seek a thriller with a little comedy mixed in; if you’re fond of a play within a play within a play and enjoy silly psychics then Deathtrap is the play for you.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
Deathtrap plays through May 12, 2012 presented by Prince George’s Little Theatre at The Bowie Playhouse-16500 White Marsh Park Road, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 937-7458, or purchase them online