Why do audiences love thrillers? I doubt we secretly long to be murderers, but perhaps it goes back to Eve and the apple: We want to see how far we can push things. Or maybe we simply admire the intricacies of their plot twists, the cleverness of characters who seem to be one thing and turn out to be another, the constant clues that lead us to think we know what’s coming and then surprise us.
Whatever the psychology, thrillers enjoy an undying love affair with audiences. Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” has been playing on London’s West End for 62 years, and Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” enjoying a very stylish revival at Pioneer Theatre Company, holds the record as the longest-running comedy-thriller in Broadway history.
The play’s premise is straightforward. Playwright Sidney Bruhl (Thom Sesma) hasn’t had a hit for 18 years. Thank God his wife, Myra (Gayton Scott), has a lot of money. A young student at a seminar he taught, Clifford Anderson (Devin Norik), sends him a play he’s written called “Deathtrap” that’s a sure success. Pretending the play needs work, Sidney invites Clifford to his house to improve it, secretly toying with the idea of murdering him and stealing his work. Conveniently the house is full of “deathtraps,” Sidney’s collection of weapons, from guns to a medieval crossbow and even a pair of handcuffs owned by Houdini.
Yes, there are murders — more than one. But what makes “Deathtrap” work is the way it taps into greed and ambition and plays with theatrical conventions. The thriller Anderson has written — or has he? — has the same two-act, six-scene, five-character structure as the play we are watching, and it evolves at the same time, both of them becoming mirror images of each other.
Throw in a ditsy Dutch psychic, Helga Ten Dorp (Kymberly Mellen), who keeps dropping in at inopportune moments; a suspicious, opportunistic lawyer, Porter Milgrim (Craig Bockhorn); and a lot of snappy dialogue, and you’ve concocted an entertaining recipe.
Sesma’s devious, curmudgeonly Sidney contrasts neatly with Norik’s charming, manipulative Clifford, but both are driven by the same cold-blooded streak of Machiavellian ambition, each constantly battling to outwit the other. Scott is loyal and supportive as Myra, and Mellen is absolutely hilarious as Helga, bumbling around the stage as she ferrets out and misreads messages from the beyond. Costume designer Brenda Van Der Wiel has given her some garishly mismatched outfits that make her even funnier. Bockhorn’s Porter has a sly, mischievous air. Director May Adrales keeps the action clipping along at a fast and furious pace.
Daniel Zimmerman’s rustic country-house set exudes a homey, but isolated, slightly sinister feeling, enhanced by Karl Haas’ dim, atmospheric lighting with its psychedelic bursts that illuminate the weapons on the walls. The dramatic music of Joshua Hight’s sound design is full of sudden stops and starts.
“Deathtrap’s” devilish cleverness and its ability to zero in on human foibles and temptations keep it timely as the years roll on. PTC’s production capitalizes on its appeal with a sly mix of style and humor.
P Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Deathtrap” blends plot twists, engaging performances and dark humor into an entertaining concoction.
When • Reviewed on March 28; Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Apr. 12, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 South University St., Salt Lake City
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission)
Tickets: Tickets are $25 to $44 in advance; $5 more on the day of the show. Half price for students K–12 on Mondays and Tuesdays. Call 581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for tickets and information.