Ira Levin's thriller "Deathtrap" became a hit after it premiered on the New York stage 27 years ago. A tightly choreographed dance of death and deceit, "Deathtrap" has a plot with twists and turns so skillfully crafted you'll probably never see them coming. The play celebrates and gently spoofs the thriller genre with a dash of humor and clever dialogue and a veneer of sophistication. "Deathtrap" is just about perfect. On the page, at least.
But perfection is not always easy to reproduce, which the Vienna Theatre Company is finding with its production of the play, a workmanlike effort that suffers from one egregious example of overacting and a weak performance in a lead role. Still, the play remains capable of engaging the mind, and even this production is a generally enjoyable excursion.
In the play, Sidney Bruhl is a famous playwright, a master of mysteries who has gone stale. His creative spark extinguished, he sees his bank account facing the same fate. But when a student brings a manuscript to him for review and the play turns out to be brilliant, we see a man who cannot help but consider the possibilities. If nobody knows the student wrote the play and no copies are floating around, and if the student could be lured to the country home Bruhl shares with his nervous wife in Connecticut . . . well, you can guess where this is going. Or so you might think.
There's no point in saying much more here. Even if you have seen "Deathtrap" (it is a perennial of local theater), you might have forgotten a twist here and a turn there. This play is like a favorite old movie you don't mind seeing again and again, and it has a certain 1940s noir aspect to it.
Ron Sweeney, who stars as Sidney, turns in a mixed performance. He capably creates a three-dimensional characterization of a complicated man. He uses his expressive face and lithe body like an old-fashioned movie star, and the hint of insouciance and grace is appealing. Sweeney's impact is diluted, however, because his voice doesn't sound natural. Much of the time it sounds forced and artificial.
Sweeney's problems pale in comparison with the train wreck that is the performance of Vivien Bligh as Sidney's wife, Myra. Director John K. Monnett has to share equally in the blame because he either told her to go overboard with scene-killing histrionics, in contrast with the nuanced and realistic work of the rest of the cast, or he inexplicably failed to tell her that less -- much less -- would really be more.
Bligh frantically bounces around Christopher Smith's country-house set, either manically wringing her hands or fluttering them like a bird having trouble getting off the ground, while screeching her lines. Her over-the-top screams on opening night spoiled two moments of intense drama by drawing too much attention to herself.
Joseph Thornhill makes his local theater debut with a satisfying portrayal of Clifford, the talented acolyte whose play -- called "Deathtrap," by the way -- becomes the center of attention. Thornhill is skillful and subtle as he creates an unsettling impression of duality at his character's core. And while he's charmed by the attention of the famous playwright, he remains grounded in his convictions. Rose Declercq is perfect as an eccentric psychic neighbor, providing tart comic relief, and Ken Perkowski capably rounds out the cast as Sidney's attorney.
It's still not too late to fix some of what ails this production and give "Deathtrap" all the bite it deserves. Let's hope.
"Deathtrap" continues through Oct. 30 at the Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry St. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sundays. For tickets, call 703-255-6360. For information, visit www.viennatheatrecompany.org.