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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

“Deathtrap” in Sierra Madre: Red Herrings and Suspense Galore

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, "feels" the room in "Deathtrap" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, “feels” the room in “Deathtrap” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

As fun as suspense-thriller plays are to watch, they are always difficult to review simply because one must tip-toe around the plot to avoid handing out unintended “spoilers”. Thus, a discussion of the Sierra Madre Playhouse production of “Deathtrap,” the wildly popular thriller which set records off-Broadway, may seem a bit cagey. Still, this production, which was postponed several times to accommodate the wild popularity of SMP’s “Always, Patsy Cline,” provides just enough fascinating red herrings, and just enough jump-out-of-your-seat surprises to be very satisfactory.

This is, in part, due to Ira Levin’s well crafted play itself, in part due to the stylish direction of SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano, and in part due to a good, ensemble cast who can carry this whole complex construction off.

The tale surrounds frustrated, if famous playwright Sidney Bruhl. Though his fortune was made by hit suspense plays, his more recent ones have fallen flat. Now, steeped in deep writer’s block, he begins to imagine other ways of acquiring a hit script to move forward with. And this is when everything gets rather dark, and extremely convoluted.

Christopher Cappiello, as Bruhl, captures the frustration, the desperation, and the potentially fearsome calculation of a man who cannot be second rate. As his practical, if a bit wary wife, Shaw Purnell displays an opposing calm and content approach to life which may actually provide Bruhl with an added irritation. David Tolemy gives an increasing self-absorption to the playwriting workshop student Bruhl has taken under his wing, while – in a tiny but essential part – Don Savage creates the jolly, but practical voice of Bruhl’s legal advisor and friend.

Still, the absolute standout in this production has to be Karesa McElheny, as Bruhl’s neighbor – a famed psychic played as the most fascinating spiritual kook since Noel Coward’s Madame Arcati. Every time she enters the room, the energy rises.

Kudos go to set designer John Vertrees. I am genuinely amazed at how much real estate he managed to get onto the tiny SMP stage, and how polished it looks. Also polished are the costumes of Vicki Conrad and Ken Merckx’s fight choreography. If there is one fly in the ointment it is that some of the antique pistols used in the play will, to anyone who knows how firearms work, be anomalous with what they are supposed to do. Other than that, the polish is constant.

There is a reason “Deathtrap” lasted so long in New York. Its twists are genuinely startling, and certainly not for either the intolerant or the faint of heart. It also offers up a rather comic, if occasionally disturbing, view of the deep and profound nature of writer’s block which can warp the imagination of anyone who makes a living by the written word.

As produced at Sierra Madre Playhouse, the suspense stays constant, suspicion of everyone allows for edge-of-your-seat viewing, and that satisfying kind of anxiousness which makes suspense stories fun doesn’t let up until the final curtain. “Deathtrap” may not be deep, but it is filled with memorable characters and great weirdnesses of plot. And that can make for one entertaining evening. One warning: due to some of the violence and a few more adult situations, I would not suggest bringing young children.

What: “Deathtrap” When: Through February 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Thursday, February 4 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-20), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or

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