Deathtrap is a throwback to the old days at Vertigo

I was at a thriller and a farce broke out. 

If you’re pressed for time, that’s really all you need to know about the Vertigo Theatre production of Deathtrap.

Director Jamie Dunsdon describes it as a love letter to Vertigo Theatre itself, and that’s clear in everything from the choice of play to the casting. The story revolves around Sidney Bruhl (Mark Bellamy), one-time hit Broadway playwright of the murder mystery genre. He’s been stuck in a dry spell of late, and living off family money belonging to his wife Myra (Barbara Gates Wilson) while he struggles to regain his former glory. One day a former student named Clifford (Tyrell Crews) sends him a play for feedback, and Sidney starts to hatch what is at first a purely speculative plot to murder the young man and steal Deathtrap, his promising play. There are cameo appearances by the Bruhls’ neighbour, Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Karen Johnson-Diamond), and Sidney’s lawyer, played by Kevin Corey. 

The play by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, A Kiss Before Dying) apparently has the distinction of being the longest running comedic thriller in Broadway history and a major film, so many in the audience were familiar with its twists and turns, but there were a fair number in the opening night audience who were new to the tale. It is both an homage and a satire of the stage thriller genre, which relies heavily on red herrings and misdirection. It is also a self-reflexive comment on theatre, as the characters discuss the relative merits of the titular play-within-a-play. “It can’t miss,” Sidney says. “A gifted director couldn’t even hurt it.”

The first act feels as if it was meant to be played a bit straighter, with the comedy evolving slowly and pace increasing in Act II. But director Dunsdon sets an over-the-top tone from the first moments, and the pace is fairly consistent throughout. There’s a little too much of a “did you see what I did there” wink when they drop a reference to Michael Caine (who starred in the film version), and every line is played for maximal laughs. Johnson-Diamond’s Dutch psychic (as in most productions, played here with an eclectic and shifting European accent) is meant to be the flamboyant one in the ensemble, but she has some stiff competition here. The cast are not rookies by any definition, and they are uniformly polished, with perfect timing. It feels as if they are delivering precisely what was requested, but they are all capable of more subtlety than we see here. 

David Fraser’s painstakingly detailed set is a delightful representation of Sidney’s preoccupation with thrillers — what he calls “thrilleritis malignis.” The walls are covered with the tools of his literary trade, from a mace and a crossbow to an array of guns, knives and handcuffs. This gets a little worrying in the second act, when I thought the actors might actually start chewing scenery (ouch!), but it’s a comically ever-present reminder of the threat literally hanging over the characters’ heads. 

It’s a nod to the old twisty thrillers that were once the only kind of play to grace the Vertigo stage — and former Vertigo artistic director Bellamy is ideal casting. His larger-than-life stage presence carries the action along at a merry pace, and if you miss the old days at Vertigo, make sure you catch this one before it’s gone.  

(Photo of Tyrell Crews and Mark Bellamy courtesy diane+mike photography.)

Deathtrap runs at Vertigo’s Playhouse until February 24.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.