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“Deathtrap” in Whittier: Reliably Convoluted Suspense, Well Done


Guy C. van Empel and Andrea Stradling as the struggling playwright and his supportive wife in “Deathtrap” at Whittier Community Theatre [photo: Amy Lauren Gettys]

Note: Short run ends March 2

The tricky bit about reviewing a play laden with suspense is how to discuss the show without committing the mortal sin of giving out spoilers. Even with a well-crafted but also well known play like Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” there is always a significant population of potential audience who does not yet know the whodunit, or even the why. With one as convoluted as “Deathtrap” is, the chances for over-explaining are even more present.

In discussing the Whittier Community Theatre production this is a particular problem. The play is done very well indeed. The set is suited to not only the stage but the needed elaborations necessary for the scary bits. The cast of confident, well-honed actors never telegraph answers before their time, and create fleshed out characters as much as possible. The intelligent direction does all the things needed for the tension to build appropriately.

WCT, currently in its 97th season, has a real reason to feel proud.

The story centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl, whose most famous, certainly most successful play – a mystery of considerable nuance – is in the rear view mirror of his career. Struggling to find some new thing which will spark the next great hit, he has had to resort to giving playwriting workshops to stay afloat, all the while living on his wife’s rapidly shrinking inheritance.

Now he has received a brand new script from one of the workshop attendees, which has all the elements of the best of his genre of work. Shall he convince the young man to let him fiddle with, and thus co-author it? Shall he steal it as his own? Or, shall he act the benevolent grandparent of the piece, and offer the younger playwright a chance to shine on his own? This is the first of many decisions which will have Bruhl and those around him twisted in knots.

Guy C. van Empel is a convincing Bruhl, fussing over his own career, plotting and planning to reclaim it one way and another. As the younger man, Mason Meskell vibrates with confidence and drive. Andrea Stradling manages the gentle, supportive, ethical wife whose presence can’t help but underscore Bruhl’s current situation. Todd Rew has a lovely time as Bruhl’s rather fussy lawyer, and Phyllis M. Nofts gives a standout performance as an internationally acclaimed psychic visiting a home nearby.

Director Justin Patrick Murphy has really taken apart the nuances of this play and found the essence of each. The surprises really are surprising. The characterizations bounce off of each other with just enough friction to keep one wary. The set, designed by the director, manages to fit the feel of a two-story restored colonial farmhouse onto the Whittier stage with just the right amount of room for each necessary action. The props are an impressive collection of miscellaneous weaponry, adding to the fun.

In short, this production of “Deathtrap” shows polish and the appropriate tension, and is a hoot to see, whether you’ve memorized the ending or have never seen the thing ever before. Well paced, well performed, and edge-of-your-seat fun, it will leave you with that nice balance of fear and laughter (yes, laughter) which proves a satisfying, and not particularly taxing, evening in the theater.

Note: WCT production runs are very short. This coming weekend is the last time to see this show. Take the time. It’s worth it.

What: “Deathtrap”  When: one remaining weekend, 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier.  How Much: $18 general, $15 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), and military with ID. Info: (562) 696-0600 or

Polished “A Christmas Story” Charms in Sierra Madre

Since 1983 the film “A Christmas Story” has been a part of many a family’s holiday traditions. Based on the writings of Jean Shepherd it offered nostalgia for a simpler time in small-town America. There, a boy in the midst of the usual drama of growing up, focuses on convincing either Santa or his parents to bring him the one thing he wants most for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time”.

More recently the tale has become a play, based not just on the film but on other nostalgic Shepherd’s writings. Done right, it can have the same charm as the film in a more immediate format.

Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse comes a chance to see it done right. From gifted child performers to solid and artful direction, through a remarkable-for-SMP set (considering the size of their stage) and a unified sense of ensemble, there is much to enjoy in what even the theater’s artistic director pegs as “one of the most ambitious plays” they have ever mounted.

The children in the production, and there are seven strong character parts for young people in the play, are double-cast. In the version I attended Ralphie was played by Julian Moser, whose earnestness and subtlety of character carried the production in impressive fashion. Myles Hutchinson and Jude Gomez were equally convincing as Ralphie’s two pals,

Daisy Kopolowsky, as the class brain, and particularly Xochitl Gomez-Deines, as the girl with eyes for Ralphie, provided that intriguing underlay of pending adolescence. Gideon Cooney Lebano, required mostly to be menacing, proved imposing as the school bully. Marshall Gluck makes nice work of Ralphie’s somewhat odd little brother.

But to lay the success of this production entirely at the feet of its talented youth would be to miss several other performances of note. As Ralphie’s imposing, world-weary teacher, and as the store employee serving as Santa’s definitely disenchanted elf, Danon Dastugue finds the neat balance between humor and bitterness which makes both characters highly entertaining.

Richard Van Slyke makes Ralphie’s father’s obsessions and character quirks as naturally warm as the tale permits, while Andrea Stradling proves the epitome of the midwestern, midcentury mom. Jackson Kendall gives the adult Ralph looking back on this storyline a lot more character than that of simple narrator, providing the glue which holds the piece together.

All these fine folks operate in this episodic tale on Charles Erven’s remarkable, and impressively flexible set, which lighting designer Derek Jones transforms, along with portions of SMP’s audience space, into something bigger than one thought could fit into this size of theater. The costumes courtesy of Shon LeBlanc, long known for his sense of period, round out the visuals in important ways. Still, the ensemble, the flow and movement of the piece, and the unified spark which push this show to its potential land solidly at the feet of director Christian Lebano. His affection for this show and his understanding of the need to pacing tight make the whole enterprise work.

So, if you are looking for something to watch to get you into the holiday mood, but have had enough of A Christmas Carol to last you awhile, why not try this show. It’s a change of pace, it’s very well done, and it will leave you thinking warm thoughts about the spirit, and the silliness, of this time of year. Children are more than welcome, though very young ones may find its humor goes over their heads.

What: “A Christmas Story” When: through December 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 19, Wednesday, December 20, and Thursday December 14 and 21 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $36 general, $33 seniors (65+), $21 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or

“Tom Jones” as Melodrama? – Odd, but satisfying in Whittier

Chelsea Caracoza and Jay Miramontes, as thwarted lovers in Whittier Community Theatre's "Tom Jones"

Chelsea Caracoza and Jay Miramontes, as thwarted lovers in Whittier Community Theatre’s “Tom Jones”

For people of an age, the title “Tom Jones” immediately brings to mind the 1963 British “adventure comedy” film of the same name, which so titillated and tweaked the censors with its nudges of licentiousness. For scholars, “Tom Jones” is the short name of the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding, also rich in adventure both in and out of the bedroom.

Oddly enough, playwright David Rogers chose that novel as the foundation for a send-up of the classic American melodrama. Now at Whittier Community Theatre, his “Tom Jones” simplifies the tale (which does it no harm) but also removes the comic juxtaposition of traits which has made the novel so popular for over 250 years.

In the book, Tom is profoundly naive and even noble, even as he is willingly pounced upon by the women of his time. His nemesis, Mr. Blifil, is as nefarious as they come, yet sanctimoniously “pure” according to standard social behavior. Therein lies the social commentary. In Rogers’ version, Tom is pure of heart and behavior, with thoughts only for his dear (and apparently unreachable) love, Sophia Western. Blifil sneers with the best, but as a much more cardboard villain in that he doesn’t have anyone particularly complex to wrestle against.

Be that as it may, director Eric Modyman has pulled out all the stops to make this oddly minted melodrama as silly as possible. Servant girls constantly carry cue cards for the audience to boo, cheer, or even sigh for the various characters. Indeed, those signs become so much a part of the action, they are sometimes used as serving trays. The main characters are played with conviction and even glee by a solid group of performers, and with a cleverly mobile set and (with one exception) costuming which evokes the correct time period, it has much humor to recommend it.

“Tom Jones” is the story of a foundling left on the pillow of a bachelor squire in the English countryside. Raised alongside his sister’s son, the jealous Blifil, Tom is treated as gentry but really has no fortune to speak of. When he falls for Sophia, the daughter of the neighboring gentleman, he is tossed out of the family and Sophia herself promised to Blifil. Tom must make his way to London, dreaming of a life with Sophia he knows will never be. What he doesn’t know is that Sophia sneaks out to go after him.

Jay Miramontes makes Jones sweet and somewhat dim, both honest and pure, and dedicated in body as well as soul to his love Sophia. Tom Royer, has a fine turn as Squire Allworthy, who raises Tom. Patrick Peterson has a truly inspired time as the evil Blifil, and has the costume to match. Chelsea Caracoza gives Sophia a lovely sense of selfish importance and naiveté, though she is also unfortunate in having the only costume which doesn’t work: satin and somewhat spare, and minus the wig all other women in the company wear, she ends up looking more like a Disney princess than a young lady of the 18th century. It’s actually quite a distraction.

In a huge cast, at least by WCT standards, there are a number of other standouts. Among them, Matt Koutroulis has a wonderful time as Sophia’s father, the oblivious outdoorsman. Andrea Stradling makes much of the mature Lady Bellaston, who wants to take Tom far more under her wing than he is ready for. In two separate parts, but particularly as an innkeeper, Nancy Tyler has great comic timing. Also with multiple parts, Jesse Ornelas hits his stride best as a very funny, charmingly inept highwayman.

Which is all to say that, taken just as a faux melodrama, “Tom Jones” comes off pretty well. Just don’t go expecting, well, “Tom Jones.” There is no subtlety here, in that melodrama virtually doesn’t allow for anything subtle. Still, it’s fun, it’s silly, and it has the same happy ending. That can be quite satisfying all by itself.

What: “Tom Jones” When: Through March 5, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m matinee on Sunday, February 28 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $12 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or

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