There are no cell phones. There are laughs about appearing on the Merv Griffin show. And there’s a major plot point about a play existing in manuscript with only one carbon copy. And you know what? Being dated is absolutely not a problem for Matthew Warchus’s smart revival of Ira Levin’s 1978 smash “Deathtrap.” Armed with Simon Russell Beale in top form and Jonathan “Glee” Groff in a sharp U.K. debut, this comedy-thriller is re-revealed as a deliciously guilty pleasure.
Sidney (Russell Beale) is a thriller dramatist holed up in Connecticut with a string of past successes and a future that’s a cross between a blank page and a black hole. Sidney’s rapid pulse-rate as he brandishes the manuscript of a brilliant new thriller is only matched by his near-toxic levels of envy since the play in question is not actually his. It’s the debut of former student Clifford (Groff), a young man conveniently unencumbered with friends or relations who know he has contacted Sidney.
“Would you really kill someone to have another hit?” inquires his wife (Claire Skinner), more than a trifle nervously. “Oh don’t be foolish, darling,” retorts Sidney, evenly. “Of course I would.” The laugh that greets his response is accompanied by the thought almost physically rippling through the auditorium: “Would he?”
From that point on, the stage is set for double-edged theatrical chicanery. A decade before the term “deconstruction” became public property, Levin’s utterly knowing confection outsleuthed “Sleuth,” simultaneously taking apart and reveling in the contrivances of the thriller genre.
With crosses and double-crosses it would be curmudgeonly to reveal, Levin’s consciously twisty plot mixes the thrills of a murder mystery with the satisfaction of being led through a complex maze. Yet “Deathtrap” is actually most like a magic act. In the right hands – as here – its success is in the misdirection.
Warchus’ pacing keeps audiences focused exactly where he wants them. The precision of the actors ties audiences to the action tightly enough to deliver the surprises – to screams of delighted terror. Better still, the production deftly balances what is happening on the surface with what Warchus wants audiences to see beneath it. There’s a tangible sense of the audience wising up to hidden motives, only to be dumbfounded when switches get pulled.
Everything is underlined by Gary Yershon’s coolly creepy score that isolates key moments further amplified by Hugh Vanstone’s expertly controlling lighting plot. As a result, the production consistently diverts the audience from the truth in a manner that’s, well, truly diverting.
Playing a character who, fascinatingly, lies almost throughout, Russell Beale delivers another masterclass in comic timing. His scandalized stupefaction at his protege’s naivete stops only just short, blissfully, of eye-rolling horror. And an alert, bouncy Groff matches him in self-control, not giving too much away too soon.
All five cast members, including a grandly daffy turn from Estelle Parsons as nosy psychic neighbor Helga ten Dorp, maintain such concentration that tension is sustained almost throughout. The only sagging point is the scene of the final twist that feels like a contrivance too far.
Contemporary theater economics – and the brevity of actors’ contracts – being what they are, this is unlikely to rival the original production’s extraordinary four-year Gotham run. Nonetheless, in the shorter term, it is, in the best sense, the definition of good old-fashioned entertainment.