So it begins. Theatre Memphis is pulling out all the stops to regain the success and popularity it enjoyed throughout the '80s. After years of declining attendance, TM's new executive director, Ted Strickland, has embarked on a program to make Theatre Memphis not only more user-friendly but also more interactive.
Part of the plan is to let the audience decide, at least to a certain extent, what plays will appear on the main stage. According to ballots placed in programs last season, the production Memphis audiences were most interested in checking out was the extremely successful 30-year-old potboiler Deathtrap, which was made into a fine and funny film in 1982 with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in the leading roles. And what's wrong with this, you might ask? Well, nothing, really. But when you are choosing a script based on community response it's good to be reminded that for a number of years even the allegedly hip readership of The Memphis Flyer claimed Pizza Hut as the best pizza in town during our annual readers' poll. And what does this gross display of deadened taste buds have to do with Deathtrap? Everything, of course. It's not the ingredients of the pizza that put Pizza Hut at the top of our readers' poll. It can't be. Goodness knows, those tomato-sauced pies with the buttery crust are about as far removed from the Italian original as you can get. It's the convenience that makes it attractive -- and the familiarity. You go to Pizza Hut and you know exactly what's in store. Enter Deathtrap. Now can you imagine anything less enticing than a familiar whodunit? Not I. But then again, the matinee audience, a typical parade of blue hair and bald heads, gasped in all the right places, so perhaps I am alone in this conviction. It was clear that no twentysomethings, almost no thirtysomethings, and only a handful of fortysomethings had opted out on a fall afternoon in the park in order to take in the mystery. Nonetheless, the house was nearly at capacity.
Director Bennett Wood is an affirmed mystery buff, and his love of and experience with the genre is obvious from the start. Not a single detail has been overlooked in this cleverly staged production of Ira Levin's decidedly clever meta-mystery. Designer Michael Walker, whose gorgeously minimal set for last season's production of Far East netted an Ostrander Award, has created another nearly perfect environment. If Frank Lloyd Wright had converted an old stable into a comfortable New England home it might have looked something like Walker's set. Of course, it's unlikely that Wright would have decorated such a comfortable and healthy home with the myriad instruments of murder and mayhem that line these walls. But this is the home of Sydney Bruhl, author of such potboilers as In for the Kill and The Murder Game, a once wildly successful playwright in the slump of a lifetime. Guns, knives, bludgeons, garrotes, and swords come with the territory.
For those few among you who aren't already familiar with the story, it goes something like this: Playwright Bruhl receives a script from an aspiring playwright who attended one of his summer seminars. It is, in the seasoned vet's opinion, a surefire hit. At his wife's insistence Bruhl invites the novice writer to his home under the auspice of collaboration. Of course, the real motive is murder. Or so we are to believe. Deathtrap's script, hackneyed as it is in a charming, self-aware way, has more twists than Chubby Checker and to say more would be a disservice to those underground dwellers who have thus far avoided the omnipresent film on cable.
Jerry Chipman is quite convincing as the icy Bruhl, though perhaps a bit too cold for his own good. The stiffness he has chosen to give the character prevents the audience from ever really liking him much, which affects the suspense. Without at least some sympathy for Bruhl, we can't fully experience the horror of his ultimate demise. Part of this problem is Martha Graber's performance as Bruhl's wealthy wife. While Graber more than fulfills the role, she is too motherly, too kind. The character, for her charm, is a bit of a buttinski and a nag. More assertiveness and browbeating on her behalf would have likewise moved things along in a more suspenseful manner.
John Moore, who worked under Chipman's direction in Far East, has, in a few short years, come a long way as an actor. He has exchanged the sneering and posing of earlier roles (Talk Radio, Speed the Plow) for listening and responding. Given this newfound maturity it would be great to see him go back and revisit some of his previous and certainly more interesting roles. As Deathtrap's Clifford Anderson, a presumably gifted writer with sociopathic tendencies, Moore is right-on. He never tips his hand and keeps even those who know the script from gleaning his true motives.
In the show's smallest but most memorable role, Anastasia Herin is an absolute delight. As Helga Ten Dorp, a noted psychic famous for her work cracking murder cases, she never sails over the top -- at least not until the show's final, riotously funny scene, which she plays with attorney Porter Milgrim (an appropriately stoic Joey Butler).
All in all, Deathtrap is good Halloween fun. It's not particularly innovative or exciting. It's not going to be the show that trumpets TM's triumphant return to form. But in the end it's more treat than trick, and who can argue with that?
Through November 4th.