“Deathtrap,” the Cambria Center for the Arts Theatre’s first play of the season, will grab you and not release you until the end. The plot twists and turns like a hangman’s noose, one of the few instruments of death that isn’t involved.
Nothing drags in the performance except a couple of bodies.
This self-referencing thriller requires close attention — as the director, former Cuesta College drama teacher Elaine Fournier, pointed out when introducing the play on preview night.
In the study of a Connecticut home, has-been playwright Sidney Bruhl (John Laird) and his wife, Myra (Mary-Ann Maloof), discuss his long dry spell and a promising script he’s just received from a former writing workshop student, aspiring playwright Clifford Anderson (Christopher Riordan).
Sidney decides to steal the manuscript by inviting Clifford to their home and dispensing with him. Myra goes along with the plan, even helping her husband take Clifford's strangled body outside.
Then the couple gets a visit from famous psychic Helga ten Dorp (Christine Miller), who is staying in a house next door. She’s there about some bad vibes she sensed from the home.
Myra can barely keep her wits about her as she lies to the psychic.
As the Bruhls prepare for bed, Myra, who has a weak heart, gets the shock of her life.
Laird is excellent as Sidney, never missing a beat while delivering a tremendous amount of rapidly delivered dialogue throughout the play. Something vaguely effeminate in his manner of speaking lends credibility to what follows.
As Myra, Maloof pales in comparison. Initially, she seems to be merely reciting her lines. But by the time her character has sufficient reason to be emotional, she shows her capabilities as an actor.
Riordan is wonderful and a delight to watch as Clifford, even if his rather adenoidal voice often muffles essential words. Plus, he and Laird are rather wimpy in a scene in which they pretend to grapple with a weapon.
Miller's performance as Helga is spectacular as she reenacts what her extrasensory perceptions have revealed to her. She marches around the study, picking up various weapons that adorn the walls — souvenirs of Sidney's career — while describing in a Western European accent how they were, or will be, used.
Near the play's end, we meet the Bruhls’ family friend and attorney, Porter Milgrim (Mark Plater).
Plater appears completely at ease as he effortlessly delivers his lines. Here’s hoping to see him on stage again in a bigger role.
Although funny and exciting, and often nerve-wracking, “Deathtrap” contains a number of situations that require a major suspension of disbelief. While some may consider those scenarios unrealistic, or at least unlikely, however, that did not prevent Ira Levin’s play from being the longest-running comedy thriller on Broadway, nor a successful Hollywood movie in 1982.
Some of the unlikely situations called for in the script include Helga's late-night visit to borrow a candle because of an impending electrical outage during a storm. Why not just go to bed early?
And since Sidney and Clifford share a desk while they work on separate manuscripts, it’s a bit much to believe that Clifford would try to keep his script a secret from Sidney.
In spite of some shortcomings, this is a wonderfully performed, exciting play, with knuckle-biting or peeking-through-your-fingers scenes. The faint-hearted are forewarned.
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through May 3
Cambria Center for the Arts Theatre, 1350 Main St., Cambria
927-8190 or brownpapertickets.com, cambriacenterforthearts.org