Never judge a playwright's source material, even if it's the inadvertent aftermath of a carefully plotted murder. That's the message of Ira Levin's Deathtrap, a comedic thriller directed by Gregory Cohen for the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre.
Nicely plotted, well acted, the story is set in Westport, Connecticut in 1978. Sidney Bruhl (Gene Godwin) finds himself, if not a one hit wonder, then at least in a creative slump. He lives in a well-appointed place in the country with his wife Myra (Allison McGuire). She's got family money, he's got, well, he's got what's left of his career, such as it is. Not helping matters is a manuscript submitted by Clifford Anderson (Johnny Martin), seemingly a former student in one of Sidney's seminars. Clifford is everything that Sidney isn't: young, optimistic about the future and, most annoying to Sidney, talented. Clifford wants feedback on a first play that, by all accounts, is brilliant. Sidney wants, well, Sidney wants to kill Clifford and take credit for the play. At least that's how poor Myra (and the audience) thinks it will play out. A murder as clever as it is shocking, a startling revelation about a motive, subsequent jealousy, suspicion, a couple more deaths, and what you've got is one fine production.
Despite the murders, the production is peppered with humor. Helga Ten Dorp (Harriet Whitmyer) is a psychic who rents the neighboring property. Talk about the worst neighbor you could possibly have if you've committed a murder and want to cover it up. Whitmyer is a tornado of hilarity, vague to the point of being easily discredited and yet scarily spot-on in her readings of what's transpired. Proving that everyone thinks they can write a play, with the notable exception of poor dead Myra, Helga too, along with Sidney's lawyer/friend Porter Milgrim (Jim Perham), thinks the real-life story could be adapted into a play.
The chilling parts are both psychological (Sidney's and Myra's scheming, Sidney and Clifford's scheming, and the individual scheming of Sidney and Clifford) and physical (a violent murder which turns out to be fake, the indirect murder the fake murder occasions, and a return from the dead that somehow didn't manage to give the audience a heart attack as well).
As the protagonist of his character's real-life murder drama, Godwin makes his Sidney desperate enough to try anything at the same time that he portrays him as a cliché of the unsuccessful playwright withering into middle age. Godwin's facial expressions tell you all you need to know about his transformation: officious yet impotent, conniving yet hapless, and then full on maniacal. Likewise with Martin's Clifford: preppy acolyte that, as it happens, has private ambitions of his own. And McGuire's Myra is, in turns, the shocked accomplice, the co-conspirator, and, ultimately, the unfortunate victim taken for a ride by her husband and his lover.
It's a compelling production full of twists and turns, none of which are anticipated. The references are quaintly dated, including Sidney's discussion of homosexuality with Porter as well as Helga's disastrous appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. As befits a murder mystery, we're in the playwright's thrall (Levin's, not Sidney's) from start to finish: the story peels like an onion. The psychological parts aren't exactly of the white-knuckle variety but they do effectively set up the sudden violence that we absolutely, positively don't see coming.
Performances are 8pm, Friday & Saturday, 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until February 15. Tickets are $14 - $24. For more information, call (562) 494-1014, option 1, or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.