If you’re searching for something civilized to get you into the Halloween spirit, look no further than International City Theatre’s stellar production of “Deathtrap”—a play that seems demure on the surface but takes so many chilling twists, it’ll make your head spin.
Written by award-winning playwright and novelist Ira Levin in 1978, “Deathtrap” begins in a very bourgeois way. Sidney Bruhl (thoroughly embodied by Geoffrey Lower) is a successful, middle-aged playwright living in a comfortable Connecticut home with his wife Myra (Jill Remez). He has just received the manuscript of a play by a former student called “Deathtrap” that he thinks is perfect.
The problem is that Sidney has run dry, both as a mystery-thriller writer and financially, and is desperate to have another hit play produced. He and Myra brainstorm in a casual if intricate way how he might convince Clifford, the former student, to let him share authorship of “Deathtrap” so he, too, might benefit from its almost certain success.
On Sidney’s invitation, Clifford (an excellent Coby Rogers) shows up with his only other copy of “Deathtrap,” along with all his notes and drafts. So far, so seemingly mundane—except for the collection of weapons arrayed on Sidney’s wall.
To paraphrase Russian writer Chekhov, if there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1, it should go off in Act 2 or 3. In this case, there are at least a dozen guns on the wall, plus knives, swords and a couple of medieval weapons.
Needless to say, everything that unfolds after Clifford’s arrival becomes so shocking and unnerving that you really just have to experience it. But the genius of the play is that nothing happens that isn’t suggested by the dialogue in between, creating subtle suspense. You get the sense that something will happen periodically, but you don’t know quite what, or how.
Adding to that uncanny feeling is the presence of Helga ten Dorp (Michelle Holmes), a famous Swedish psychic staying for a while in a nearby cottage. Holmes seems to have fun delivering Helga’s accented pronouncements of possible pain and violence at the Bruhls’ when she visits them, feeling their auras and scoping out the home with her hands—including the weapons collection, one of which she ominously predicts will be used in some way involving a play.
Rounding out the cast is the Bruhls’ lawyer friend Porter Milgrim (Patrick Vest), who himself took a stab at playwrighting back in the day. His main function seems to be observing something about an antique desk that causes Sidney so much consternation he attempts all manner of ways to undo its well-made lock.
All the actors do a phenomenal job not just with the nuanced dialogue, but with that type of physical action and interaction (choreographed by Vest). Lower and Rogers especially, as playwright and former student, engage in those moments so believably it seems real—perhaps even startling to see on stage.
Director Jamie Torcellini no doubt has much to do with orchestrating that believability, as does the detailed set of the Bruhls’ cozy home (designed by Fred Kinney, with lighting by Crystal Shomph), which itself plays a pivotal role in the plot.
For an unexpectedly unforgettable theatrical experience—or rather, a weirdly metatheatrical experience, given that “Deathtrap” centers on a play idea called “Deathtrap”—run don’t walk to see this production. Perfect for a grown-up Halloween, creepy without the candy.
International City Theatre’s “Deathtrap” continues through Nov. 5 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased by calling (562) 436-4610 or visiting ICTLongBeach.org. Run time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.