A Review of Chamber Theatre’s Rollicking Whodunit, ‘Deathtrap’

Director, actors and designers have a bloody good time in Ira Levin’s ’70s-era comic thriller.

Lightning flashes. Lamps flicker. Mozart’s Requiem booms in the background. But it’s the assemblage of torturous and potential murder weapons that constantly draw your focus in Milwaukee Chamber Theater’s new roller-coaster production of Deathtrap.

Arnel Sancianco honors playwright Ira Levin’s devilish intentions in his set design of Sidney Bruhl’s “writing room,” a converted barn in the wilds of Connecticut. If Chekhov’s old saw about a loaded gun rings true (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired”), the display here suggests more grisly murders than a whole season of Game of Thrones.

No chainmail, however. Just costume designer Eleanor Cotey’s pleasantly wacky array of plaids and paisleys, glowing eerily under Alexander Ridgers’ lighting design. We are in the late ‘70s, after all — that long-ago era during which a playwright might build a fairly lucrative career penning whodunits for the stage. Here, it’s Bruhl (Bill Watson) who displays his legacy in the form of unusual weapons and posters from his previous Broadway hits. As the play begins, however, he’s got a case of writer’s block that would keep the Minnesota Vikings Fearsome Foursome at bay, and is getting tired of living on the family wealth of his doting wife, Myra (Susan Spencer).

Enter Clifford Anderson (Di’Monte Henning), a former student, who arrives via a brown paper envelope — a work-in-progress called Deathtrap, which has Broadway smash written all over it. Anderson would like some help polishing his script before he sends it to agents, and Bruhl invites him to come up to his farm on that very dark and stormy night to look over the scenes together.

Bill Watson and Di’Monte Henning.
Photo by Paul Ruffalo.

Aaaannnnnd….that’s as far as I’m going to go. Levin’s play, of course, depends on surprises, lots of them. And while there is murder and mayhem afoot, the only real discomfort during the evening is via the firm pressing of tongue into cheek.

Saturday night, there were a few glitches in pacing and an occasional dropped line, but the actors were clearly in the “this is starting to get fun” phase of the opening weekend. A comic thriller requires just the right balance of method-y investment and winking showmanship, and Spencer, Henning and Watson hit the mark in scene after scene. Mary Kababik and David Sapiro have some stress-relieving comic cameos, and they make the most of them.

Director Michael Cotey — formerly of Youngblood Theatre — is now based in Chicago, but let’s hope he keeps coming north for the occasional visit. His rapport with actors is evident throughout Deathtrap, and he balances the comic and the scream-inducing with a deft hand.

Deathtrap runs at the Broadway Theatre Center through August 27. 




Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.