A has-been playwright with writers block, money woes and a quiver of sarcastic one liners; his martini-tippling excitable wife; a naive neophyte writer with a “can’t miss” unpublished play; a secluded Colonial house in the middle of a thunder storm – “Deathtrap” has all the elements for an edge-of-the-seat evening of tense entertainment sprinkled copiously with comic relief.

Ira Levin’s Tony nominated play opened April 15 at Reno’s Brüka Theatre of the Sierra. Levin won an Edgar Award for the 1978 hit that was Broadway’s longest running comedy-thriller. Directed skillfully by Brüka first-timer, Michelle Merksamer, the two-act mystery has more twists and turns than a tangled fishing line.

The dilemma in reviewing a who done it is that you can’t give away too much. But if you think you can divine who did it, even after watching the first act, the playwright has some surprises in store. Act one opens with Sidney Bruhl (Michael Peters), an obliquely menacing, once-successful playwright scheming to recapture his lost glory days. During the dry spell he’s been living off his wife’s money. His hysterical, hyperventilating, gin-swilling wife Myra – played hilariously by Mary Bennett – wonders just how low he will go to recapture success. “Underhanded enough to be a successful murderer…but not a Broadway producer,” Sidney smirks. Enter Clifford Anderson (Chris Wilson), a wannabe playwright with a very promising but unpublished play, and the Dance Macabre begins. Add the shrill Gypsyesque psychic Helga ten Dorp (Lynn Carasali) and wily opportunist lawyer Porter Milgrim (Lewis Zaumeyer) and the laughs and surprises last all the way to the finale.

The single-set design by Zaumeyer is one of most artistically creative and authentic I’ve seen: A half-timbered stable converted to a writer’s office, with walls decorated by a collection of tools of the murder trade, a field-stone fireplace, cozy divan, writer’s desk and rolling bar tray with compulsory Gin and Scotch bottles. A dissonant staccato piano – the theme from “Murder by Death” – played between the scenes adding sensory tension that heightened expectations. Thunder and lightning courtesy of the sound and lighting technician capped off the perfect ambiance for a murder mystery.

Is “Deathtrap” a play or a plot? Or a plot that becomes a play and spins into another plot? What is this thing with a life of its own that entangles those lured into its web of deceit and death? You’ll just have to see it to find out…and you should. After the snappy first act, I was scoring this a five-star production. The second act lost some pacing and intensity and slowed to the level of a cozy mystery. It was the first performance after all. Nevertheless, I was still intrigued trying to figure out where Levin was headed. Four serpentine, and seductive, stars.

What: “Deathtrap”

Where: Brüka Theatre of the Sierra, 99 N. Virginia St., Reno

When: Through May 14


By Galen Watson