Review: ‘Deathtrap’ at The Arlington Players

I could tell you about the play’s plot, but then you would have to kill me.

Yes, you read that right and it’s the premise of Deathtrap, The Arlington Players’ latest production. The highly entertaining production is a clever blend of plot twists, humor, and suspense.

Sam Nystrom ( ) and Zell Murphy (Sidney Bruhl).
Sam Nystrom (Clifford Anderson) and Zell Murphy (Sidney Bruhl). Photo by Peter Hill.

What I can tell you this. The plot revolves around Sidney Bruhl, a Broadway playwright who is experiencing a creative vacuum. After several highly successful thrillers, his recent works have been flops. When he reads a brilliant new script from one of his students, he sets in motion a plan that he believes will return him to rave reviews and the best tables at Sardi’s. The new play is, like the actual play itself, is a five-character, one set thriller.

And what a set it is. The setting—the playwright’s study in his spacious Westport, Connecticut, home–is beautifully conveyed by Set Designer Andrew JM Regiec (who is also the show’s Director), Master Carpenter Dan Widerski, Set Painter and Scenic Artist Mary Speed, Set Dresser Janet Devine Smith, Mary Jo Ford (properties) and Greg Steele (props). From the moment you enter the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, you are pulled in by the exquisite set and its attention to detail.

Deathtrap, written by Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives author Ira Levin, holds the record for the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway. First produced in 1978, it was nominated for that year’s Tony Award for Best Play. In 1982, the play was adapted into a movie starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. While a few of the jokes seem dated, overall the script holds up well. The opening night audience seemed to especially enjoy the inside-theater references.

The five-character cast is a strong ensemble. As the desperate playwright Sidney, Zell Murphy successfully carries the weight of the production’s success on his shoulders. At times calculating and others frantic, he maintains the energy needed to keep us engaged.

Jennifer Pagnard plays Sidney’s wife Myra, a caring woman who has faith in her husband’s talent and is understanding of his artistic moods. Pagnard is a talented actress who brings a strength and intensity to the character that I have not previously experienced in other productions. She is a driving force in escalating the play’s tension through her responses and emotions. I miss her when she was not on stage.

Sam Nystrom plays Clifford Anderson, Sidney’s eager seminar student who aspires to be a successful playwright. Nystrom plays the complicated role with believability and finesse. Sidney’s attorney Porter Milgrim is played by Bernard Engel, a veteran actor who embodies the stereotypical lawyer.

Rounding out the cast, Gayle Nichols-Grimes is a show stopper as Helga Ten Dorp, a madcap celebrity psychic who lives next door. It is a part that so easily could be over the top but Nichols-Grimes delivers a bravura performance that hits just the right notes. When first meeting Sidney and Myra, her frenzied “readings” of both the past and future are hilarious. While it’s a character we’ve seen many times before, the actress brings an unexpected freshness to the role.

Gayle Nichols-Grimes (Helga Ten Dorp) and (Sidney Bruhl). Photo by
Zell Murphy (Sidney Bruhl) and Jennifer Pagnard (Myra Bruhl). Photo by Peter Hill.

Director Regiec makes full use the theatre’s expansive stage while ensuring the pace never drags. While I might appreciate a bit more nuance from several performances at times, the show’s overall comic timing is nearly perfect and Regiec elicits solid performances from the cast. Kudos to him for his creativity in how the crew re-sets the stage during the first moments of the intermission.

The work of Lighting Designers Ken and Patti Crowley, Sound Designer Richard Farella, and Costume Designer Laura Fontaine contribute to the overall success of the production. The thunder and lightning effects sync perfectly. The costumes are spot-on for the 1979 setting without being distracting.

The Arlington Players’ production of Deathtrap is a fun night at the theater offering great value for your entertainment dollar. Go see it with a group so you can talk about the plot. You’ll be glad you did.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.

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Deathtrap plays through February 13, 2016, at The Arlington Players performing at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre – 125 South Old Glebe Road, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 549-1063, or purchase online.

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