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posted: 1/18/2013 5:00 AM

Steel Beam's 'Deathtrap' needs sharpening

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  • Aspiring playwright Clifford (James Dauphin, right) collaborates and conspires with his mentor Sidney (Daniel Scurek) in Steel Beam Theatre's revival of Ira Levin's thriller "Deathtrap."

      Aspiring playwright Clifford (James Dauphin, right) collaborates and conspires with his mentor Sidney (Daniel Scurek) in Steel Beam Theatre's revival of Ira Levin's thriller "Deathtrap."

 
 

"Deathtrap," Ira Levin's shrewdly crafted play-within-a-play, has the fundamentals -- droll dialogue, comic relief and well-placed thrills -- that make for entertaining theater.

Unfortunately, that's not enough for Steel Beam Theatre's revival. For "Deathtrap" to really pay off, it needs to be properly, incisively paced to sustain a certain amount of tension, the kind that keeps audience members on the edge of their seats. That is the lifeblood of "Deathtrap." Steel Beam's production, however, feels a bit anemic under director Bernie Weiler.

The problem rests mainly with the show's sluggish pacing. There's also an issue with performances that feel under-rehearsed, although I suspect they may sharpen as the actors settle into their roles over the rest of the run. On opening night, however, Steel Beam's "Deathtrap" had a hard time conjuring the kind of suspense that is crucial to a successful thriller.

Daniel Scurek plays playwright Sidney Bruhl, whose string of successful thrillers ended 18 years earlier, and whose recent projects have all been flops.

As Sidney observes, "nothing recedes like success."

To make matters worse, Sidney suffers from writer's block, leaving him surly and entirely dependent on his devoted wife Myra (Scurek's real-life wife Jeanne Scurek), whose inheritance keeps the couple financially afloat.

Desperate for a hit show (and willing to go to any lengths to secure it), Sidney comes across a first draft of a murder-mystery titled "Deathtrap," written by Clifford (James Dauphin), an aspiring writer enrolled in a seminar Sidney teaches at the local university. Eager for feedback, Clifford sent the script to Sidney, who sees it as a lifeline.

It turns out the play is good, so good, says Sidney, that "even a gifted director couldn't hurt it." In fact, it's so good Sidney contemplates killing Clifford and passing "Deathtrap" off as his own.

"What's the use of having a mace if you don't use it?" he remarks to a horrified Myra. He then assures her that he is not a murderer by reminding her there "is a world of difference between a paper victim and a real one."

Probably.

Instead, Sidney invites the young writer to his Connecticut home with the promise of assistance and possibly collaboration. They meet in the converted stable Sidney uses as a den, and whose walls are filled with the tools of Sidney's theatrical trade -- specifically the weapons (including the aforementioned mace, several pistols and a crossbow) with which his characters dispatch each other.

Cat-and mouse games ensue, accompanied by several twists, which would spoil the play if revealed.

Suffice to say, not everything is as it appears.

Scurek lands the laughs and delivers a delicious slow burn as the increasingly annoyed (make that nearly apoplectic) Sidney. Dauphin makes a genial Clifford, whose deference toward his mentor gives way to criticism and eventually menace as Clifford's confidence in his talent grows.

Rounding out the cast is Dean Dranias as Sidney's wary attorney Porter Milgrim and Sherry Winchester Schultz, who delivers a lightly comic turn as the neighborhood psychic Helga Ten Dorp, whose readings prove uncannily accurate.

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