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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Surprises fill Attic Theatre’s ‘Deathtrap’

The thriller was a hit in the late 1970s.
Attic Theatre logo
Attic Theatre logo

PHOTO: These are some of the ominous props in the Attic Theatre production of “Deathtrap.” Attic Theatre photo

MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) – It is possible to be murderous and comical at the same time. Playwright Ira Levin combines the two in “Deathtrap,” his hit play from 1978 that community troupe Attic Theatre is performing through July 19 in Lucia Baehman Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. Info: www.attictheatreinc.com.

The play ends on a murderously comical note… but, wait, I’m not supposed to give anything away. Oh well, that would take up too much time anyway because there’s so much that goes on in the play that is spoiler material. This can be said:

Attic Theatre does a good job with “Deathtrap” (4 stars out of 5) as Alan Johnson leads a cast of five through its hairpin turns of plot in the play-within-a-play.

***

Creative: Playwright – Ira Levin; director – Alan Johnson; set designer and stage manager – Frank Tower; sound design – Kurt Schlietner; costumer – Tricia Adams; properties manager – Nichole Polster.

Cast: Sidney Bruhl – Gary Zurbuchen; Myra Bruhl – Joyce Graves; Clifford Anderson – Sophie Hough; Helga ten Dorp; Debra Oettinger; Porter Milgrim – Andrew Tepolt.

***

The production is done as a period piece. “The Merv Griffin Show” is still on TV (it aired from 1965 to 1986). A rotary dial telephone is used. The playwright in the story envisions his “Deathtrap” play eventually playing on movie screens with George C. Scott and Michael Caine as stars (Michael Caine did star in a real-life “Deathtrap” movie in the 1982, opposite Christopher Reeve). The name of Sun Myung Moon is dropped in, he being a self-proclaimed messiah and quite controversial on the international scene for many years. (Where is he now? Deceased as of 2012).

The piece also is period in pacing. Plays of the 1970s/1980s proceed at a different speed than today’s ventures. Ira Levin takes his good-natured time moving things along in “Deathtrap.” It seems he likes the sound of his voice as he (in the persona of the play’s playwright) goes on and on in methodically setting up his diabolical plans, and then recounting what has happened after events happened. That gives Gary Zurbuchen much to do as the central character, playwright Sidney Bruhl, an erudite lout.

Sidney Bruhl’s one hit is long past, and he lives off the money of his life-weary and Sidney-weary wife, Myra (Joyce Graves). There’s great hope, it seems, for Sidney Bruhl when Clifford Anderson (Sophie Hough), a student at one of his seminars, delivers into his hands a sure-hit thriller play that will launch to Sidney Bruhl new fame – once he clears the path by killing Clifford Anderson. Myra is understandably upset by her husband’s plan.

Without giving too much away, this can be said: Also part of the action are a comical psychic, played with spirit and an accent by Debra Oettinger, and Sidney Bruhl’s lawyer/financial advisor, played by Andrew Tepolt.

It’s an able cast, with Gary Zurbuchen doing yeoman’s work and Debra Oettinger scoring lots of laughs. On opening night, Joyce Graves and Gary Zurbuchen hit an icy patch with their lines skidding all over the place. Fortunately, they eventually got control, and their scenes together the rest of the way were on the mark. Applause for their stick-to-it-tiveness.

The production is of note for its support elements. The set, representing a stable converted into living quarters, includes real wooden beams, a two-person custom made desk and painted fake rough-wood-plank flooring that looks like the real thing (a wonderful touch). Among props, Sidney Bruhl has an arsenal of weapons; and their two full cases are akin to displays in a museum. Sound effects are convincing for the scene on a dark and stormy night (funny how that happens so much in thrillers).

REST OF SEASON: “Bye Bye Birdie,” July 25-Aug. 2.

THE VENUE: Lucia Baehman Theatre is a 125-seat, rectangular space in the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Communication Arts Center. Lined by black stage curtains on each wall, the space serves as a black-box theater. There are no adornments, and the stage and space are adaptable to whatever a production needs. The adjacent lobby is spacious and includes a ticket office, snack service area, restrooms and spaces for art and photo displays. The center opened in 2009.

THE PEOPLE: Lucia Baehman and her husband, Stan, are longtime supporters of theater in the Fox River Valley.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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