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THEATER REVIEWS 'DEATHTRAP,' 'SPIDER'S WEB' : Madcap Mysteries : Scandal, murder, clues, cover-up and comedy take center stage at the Santa Paula Theater Center.

May 30, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vintage-styled and relatively contemporary mystery dramas alternate in repertoire through July for the Santa Paula Theater Center's summer season, as Agatha Christie's 1954 "The Spider's Web" and Ira Levin's 1978 "Deathtrap" vie for audience attention.

Inspired, most likely, by the success of Anthony Shaffer's 1970 comic mystery "Sleuth," Levin (whose best-known work may be the novel "Rosemary's Baby") created the intricate, tricky and amusing "Deathtrap."

In it, playwright Sydney Bruhl has suffered a dry streak for many years, and his wife's fortune shows signs of drying up. Unexpectedly, a script arrives--Clifford Anderson, a former pupil, has written his first play and has submitted it to Bruhl for comments.

The script is perfect, Bruhl tells his wife, a "one-set, five-character moneymaker" so well written that "even a 'gifted' director couldn't ruin it." The failing playwright then develops a scheme whereby he will murder Anderson and claim the play, called "Deathtrap," as his own.

Levin's play became a raging success, the longest-running mystery drama in Broadway history.

There was a 1982 film adaptation, starring Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon and Christopher Reeve.

Everett Skaggs and Gary Best play Bruhl and Anderson, respectively; the world-weary artist and his eager, young protege. Stormie Anderson appears as Bruhl's wife; a scene in which she watches her husband make a crucial telephone call is some of the best acting of the show. Jan Stratton shows authority as the meddlesome Dutch psychic who lives next door to the Bruhls, and Richard Harwood turns in a generally strong performance as Bruhl's attorney.

Best and Anderson are very good, though; Skaggs' performance and the show's pace were hampered somewhat last Friday night by multiple fluffed lines and missed cues. Having his character huff and puff a lot failed to cover the problems completely.

Overall, "The Spider's Web" is much more successful--better written, better paced and better acted by a cast twice the size of that of "Deathtrap."

We are again in a drawing room, this one in the English countryside of Kent. Clarissa, the imaginative wife of career diplomat Henry Hailsham-Brown, discovers the corpse of an acquaintance. She can't report the murder to the police because her husband is due home soon with a VIP, and any hint of a scandal could be ruinous. Clarissa recruits a trio of family friends and the estate's gardener to help temporarily cover up the crime. In the meantime, of course, there remain the questions of who committed the murder, and why.

The motive is revealed fairly early on, to anybody who's paying the slightest bit of attention, although the identity of the murderer comes as a bit of a surprise. But this play's charm results from the individual characters and the way they handle the situation--as opposed to "Deathtrap," where the convoluted trickery is the show's main draw.

Rachel Babcock is a delight as the madcap Clarissa. Jamie Mulligan-Smith practically steals every scene she's in as Clarissa's teen-age stepdaughter, and Ken Johnson and Bob Daley resonate as her two older, upper-class friends.

As gardener Miss Peake, Margaret Nesbitt is the only person in the play to speak with a British accent. English herself, Nesbitt is entitled. Wisely, the rest of the cast sticks to generic mid-Atlantic, rather than the hodgepodge that's common in community theater productions of English plays.

A good portion of Sunday afternoon's "The Spider's Web" audience seemed to have already seen, and enjoyed, "Deathtrap." Still, if you're only going to see one, invest in classic Agatha Christie.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Deathtrap" and "The Spider's Web" continue in repertory through July 28 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 South 7th St., Santa Paula. "The Spider's Web" plays tonight and Friday, plus June 8, 9, 13, 14, 22, 23, 27, 28 and July 6, 7, 13, 14, 18, 19, 27 and 28. "Deathtrap" can be seen this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, plus June 6, 7, 15, 16, 20, 21, 29 and 30, and July 5, 11, 12, 20, 21, 25, and 26. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2:30. Admission is $11 for Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon shows; $12.50 on Friday and Saturday evenings. Call (805) 525-4645.

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