'Deathtrap' asks the question: How far would you go for fame?
A deathtrap is a device in which a villain uses an overly elaborate, drawn-out scheme to kill a good guy, usually the hero. The deathtrap's fatal flaw is that it gives the intended victim time to escape (instead of trapping Indiana Jones in the Well of Souls, why didn't Belloc just shoot him?).
Ira Levin's funny/scary "Deathtrap" became one of the longest-running plays in Broadway history and was made into a crackerjack 1982 suspense film with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Oregon Stage Works' crisp revival of that modern classic, directed by Dennis Klein, is long on fun and not without chills.
Sidney Bruhl (Sam King) is a playwright whose one mega-hit has receded 18 years in the rearview. He is blocked. Bruhl is living on his wife's (Jennifer Miller-Brian) money in Connecticut. His writing studio, built onto a handsome colonial house, is a converted stable furnished with a collection of weapons over the mantle.
In the mail comes a script called "Deathtrap" from a former workshop student of Bruhl's named Clifford Anderson (Dayvin Turchiano). It has hit written all over it, and Bruhl jokes about getting rid of Anderson and claiming the script as his own.
He telephones Anderson, tells him the script needs work and offers to collaborate. Anderson shows up, and master and student begin work. In this pre-digital era, the men have both the original and the only carbon copy, so that if anything were to happen to Anderson, Bruhl could claim the play as his own.
As we watch a play called "Deathtrap" about two playwrights working on a play called "Deathtrap," has Bruhl set a deathtrap for Anderson? Hint: Remember those knives and swords and maces and guns on the mantle? Remember Chekhov's rule that a gun on the mantle in the first act must be fired by the third act?
At the heart of "Deathtrap" is a satirical notion: How far would you go for the fame and fortune that come with a Broadway hit?
Any hint of navel-gazing or lint-gathering in "Deathtrap" would be fatal, but Klein's vigorous direction keeps the momentum building. King gives Bruhl a humorous dimension that injects a note of irony, and as a result we often are more amused than horrified.
The play's strength is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, which is altogether fitting if you're a representation of art imitating life imitating art. The plot zigzags and doubles back on itself so that each time you think you know what's coming you are surprised.
A canny psychic named Helga Ten Dorp (Rochelle Savitt) and Bruhl's Brahmin lawyer, Porter Milgrim (Brian Wallace), leaven the mix as they turn our play into Bruhl's description of Anderson's play: two acts, one set, five characters.
The acting is strong throughout despite a few opening-night line glitches. King and Turchiano give each other plenty to play off, including a moment that stunned audiences 30 years ago. Even the minor characters add something surprising and provocative.
Brian Wallace's handsome set and J.C. Cook's vintage props — a mechanical typewriter, an electric typewriter, a black desk phone that rings instead of beeps — provide a cozy verisimilitude. Lisa Marie Malovoz overcame some lighting problems to render the lightning for an outside storm that reflects, Shakespeare-style, the characters' inner worlds.
Aside from its seed notion of vaulting ambition (speaking of Shakespeare), "Deathtrap" does not have a serious bone in its slick, amusing body. The deathtrap as a device often is mocked for stretching out time, but its namesake here makes two-and-a-half hours whiz by in a thrice.
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.