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“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

Hitchcock Spoof Hits the Spot

It was always a kooky, wonderful idea: take a dated but exciting Hitchcock thriller (based on an equally dated, equally exciting Patrick Barlow book), and turn it into a tongue-in-cheek farce. Make it an homage to the great film director. Give it a cast of four: two leads and two clowns playing absolutely everybody else in the story. And that is how “The 39 Steps” was born.

Now in a fast-paced, often laugh-out-loud funny production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the McCoy Rigby series there, this “The 39 Steps” manages the careful balance between story line and silliness – a tightrope shows often have trouble walking. Much of this is due to an impressive cast, with the aid of a director strong enough to keep the reins on potential comedic excess.

Andrew Borba – the only cast member allowed one part from beginning to end – plays Richard Hannay, a British national recently returned from a long stint in Canada. Looking for entertainment at a local music hall, he encounters a mysteriously foreign woman who asks him to take her back to his flat, utters fantastical things about plots and spies, and then ends up murdered. From that point on, Hannay must follow the mystery woman’s leads not only to save the country, but to save himself from a murder charge.

Borba’s Hannay proves appropriately ruggedly handsome and innately charming, and his crisp timing plays well against the other cast members. Dana Green becomes his main foil, playing first the mysterious stranger, and then the young woman to whom he becomes literally bound in the process of his journey. Her balance of heart and sheer silliness powers the central storyline.

David McBean and Matt Walker, two consummate clowns, bring the rest of the story to life, sometimes playing several characters at once by shifting their hats. Walker studied with the best clown in the business, Bill Irwin, as well as others, and Irwin’s particular subtle physical technique powers his portrayals of everyone from a gleeful Scottish innkeeper to an underwear salesman on the train. McBean isn’t far behind, having a lovely time playing with and off of Walker.

All of this has been both nurtured and held in constraint by director Jessica Kubzansky, whose task is the difficult one of allowing the show’s humor without having it overwhelm the story. This is a tale which must be paced well, and this is another place where Kubzansky shines. She also does well as traffic cop, making sure that a set made up entirely of small bits of scenery and prop proves facile enough, and is moved quickly enough to take one through the story in seamless fashion.

“The 39 Steps” is a silly tale, but quite compelling in its way. If you want to watch fabulous subtle clowning, and people telling a good story in a highly entertaining way, this is for you. You will not come out with anything profound, but you will come out with an appreciation for the things live theater can do which no other medium can master.

What: “The 39 Steps” When: Through February 12, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays,, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $35 – $50 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or

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