Shallow Grave

Successful dramatic thrillers share three common elements: deceptive characters, unexpected plot twists, and a lifeless body. The sluggish production of Ira Levin's 1978 comedy-thriller Deathtrap, now playing at the Off Broadway Theatre in Wilton Manors, gets the lifeless part right.

Master mystery playwright Sydney Bruhl (Brian C. Smith), Deathtrap's protagonist, knows what it takes to make a thriller work. In his studio (marvelously realized in Jay Tompkins' set), located in a converted stable on his nine-acre Connecticut estate, mementos from Sydney's past Broadway triumphs share wall space with an arsenal of guns, knives, and medieval maces.

But Sydney suffers from a serious case of writer's block and now lives off his wealthy wife Myra (Carole Vaughn) and the money he makes conducting occasional seminars for fledgling playwrights. After one of his students, Clifford (Gregg Baruch), sends him a first draft of what Sydney considers to be a sure-fire hit, he fumes with jealously -- until he realizes that he is the only person besides Clifford who has seen the script. A desperate Sydney invites Clifford over to offer a few pointers, first making certain that Clifford agrees to bring along all existing copies of the script.

Bursting with dreams of glory, Clifford arrives only to be greeted by Myra's suggestion that Sydney share in the play's profits as a collaborator. Additionally, Sydney buffets Clifford with queries about his friends, future appointments, and living arrangements. Little wonder that the script meeting's discordant vibrations draw the attention of the Bruhls' new neighbor, famed Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Patti Smith), who senses terrible things will occur in the studio.

And not surprisingly they do, as over the course of six scenes alliances are made, tables are turned, and murder is committed. But Deathtrap, where is thy sting? Thanks to actor-director Smith's languid pacing, which affords us too much time to ponder the red herrings, and the cast's predictable portrayals, Levin's dramatic puzzle never startles us; nor does it leave us uneasily pondering how well we can ever know someone. With the words possible victim hovering unseen over her head from the start, Vaughn's whiny Myra is hardly the checkbook-wielding force who can manipulate her brilliant husband. Similarly, only a fool would trust Baruch's yuppie writer, who makes it clear he will stop at nothing to succeed.

Deathtrap's success, however, depends on the cold manipulation of the aloof Sydney, whom Smith makes too ingratiating to be menacing. As for Patti Smith, she transforms her Ten Dorp into a psychic-hotline buffoon, offering welcome comic relief. Robbed of its suspense and fascinating characters, this Deathtrap is more whydoit than whodunit.

Grandma Sylvia's Funeral.
Created by Glenn Wein and Amy Lord Blumsack. Directed by Glenn Wein. Starring Glenn Wein, Bonnie Black, and Laura Freundlich. Ongoing. For more information call 954-344-7765 or see "Stage Listings."

Written by Ira Levin. Directed by Brian C. Smith. Starring Brian C. Smith, Gregg Baruch, and Carole Vaughn. Through December 31. For more information call 954-566-0554 or see "Stage Listings.

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