Saturday, April 2, 2011

REVIEW: Asolo Rep kills with “Deathtrap”

Left to right: Bryan Torfeh, Mercedes Herrero, Dane Dandridge. Photo by Frank Atura.

The venerable Asolo Rep doesn’t usually dabble in thrillers.

Probably because theater snobs love to lambast the genre.

They do now — big time — and they did when Ira Levin sat down to write “Deathtrap,” which premiered in 1978.

One of the biggest successes in Broadway history, the play pretty much sticks to murder mystery standards while offering superb shock/awe moments peppered with laugh-out-loud humor.

But Levin also smartly pokes fun at himself.

More specifically, he delivers a sly spoof of the formulaic, plot-driven nature of the suspense-surprise genre.

Asolo Rep has a devilish good time with “Deathtrap,” which is a play about a play titled “Deathtrap.”

Sure, there are plot points that don’t quite result in suspension of disbelief.

Staging a fake murder so the onlooker has a deathly heart attack?

Come on.

But, on balance, Levin’s script holds up.

Director Peter Amster puts all the pieces together just right but it’s the cast — chosen by Michael Edwards, Asolo Rep’s artistic director — that makes what could be creaky, vibrant.

Bryan Torfeh has a field day with formerly fortunate playwright and closet homosexual Sidney Bruhl, who would kill for his first hit in 18 years.

It’s a big role that Torfeh tackles with ease. He’s by turns smarmy, charming and maniacal. Torfeh drops droll lines with aplomb one moment and manages to be downright scary the next. You can sympathize — at least to the measure required of the role — with Sidney, even when he behaves, ah, badly.

Dane Dandridge is Clifford Anderson, Sydney’s admirer turned lover turned nemesis. An Asolo Conservatory student, Dandridge has no problem keeping up with the four other veteran Equity actors on stage. He has the pretty face to play the pretty face and the chops to be as equally conniving as Torfeh’s Sydney. It’s a joy watching the two men verbally and physically spar throughout the second act.

In addition to Sydney’s witty remarks, comedy comes from Dutch or German psychic Helga Ten Dorp, played by Carolyn Michel.

Mercedes Herrero as Sydney’s wife and James Clarke, who crushed as Juror Three in the Asolo Rep’s brilliant production of “Twelve Angry Men,” as Sydney’s lawyer, round out the five-person, first-rate cast.

Another important player in the play is the setting for all six acts: Sydney’s study in the Bruhl home in Westport, Conn. Designer Michael Schweikardt has created a spooky sanctuary full of warmth and weaponry that’s nearly as intriguing as the actual action.

Levin’s “Deathtrap” might not ask any meaningful questions about the human condition but it’s exceptionally entertaining.

And the play’s most famous line, “nothing recedes like success,” spoken by Sidney, rings completely false in regard to the Asolo Rep’s staging of the comedy-thriller that first blew Broadway away 33 years ago.

The Asolo Repertory Theatre's production of"Deathtrap" opened April 1 and runs through May 14 in Sarasota. Click for info.
This review ran on page 2A of the Bradenton Herald on Sunday, April 3.

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