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STAGE REVIEW : Spirited 'Deathtrap' Revival : Fading playwright would kill for another hit. En route, one must suspend belief, suffer a Byzantine plot and await gunshot in Act II.

August 28, 1992|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times

"Deathtrap," a comedy thriller that works much better on stage than it did as a movie, is enjoy ing a spirited revival at Actors Alley Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood.

The central character is a once-famous playwright (John B. Donovan) who hasn't struck it big in 18 years. Reduced to teaching a seminar in the plotting of thrillers, he would kill for another hit.

Unimaginable opportunity comes knocking at the door of his Connecticut country studio: a former playwriting student (Rajan Dosaj) bearing the only drafts of a thriller he wants the older playwright to read. The latter playfully tells his wife (the palpitating Karen Reed) it's so good he could murder for it.

Director Marcia Rodd's first act is crisp, witty and dark, with delicious prevarication from the nefarious Donovan, who can't help but lie even during casual chats on the phone, and the wonderfully ingenuous-looking Dosaj, ripe for the plucking.

But Ira Levin's suspense melodrama, a long-running Broadway hit in 1978 turned into a mediocre film in 1982, prematurely peaks at the end of the first act. The second act strains your willingness to suspend disbelief.

Like Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth" and Rupert Holmes' "Accomplice," which it closely resembles in its homosexual subtext, "Deathtrap" has a Byzantine plot, with surprises displaced by even greater surprises.

But its second-act tricks--power failures, locked desk drawers, blank cartridges and death by crossbow--feel like the acts of a playwright desperate to find a conclusion to his play (just like the young playwright within the play).

In this sense, "Deathtrap" can be seen as a thriller that simultaneously satirizes its own genre. This is particularly evident in the final scene, a hokey fade-out featuring the reappearance of two supporting female characters, the burned-out playwright's protective, nosy lawyer (Karole Graham) and his Swedish neighbor and startled ESP expert (a heavily accented caricature rather amusingly played by Jeanie Van Dam).

Set designer Starbuck's rustic country house with its bizarre walls of antique weaponry conveys the play's humor, as well as its darker qualities. A sign in the lobby warns all patrons that "A gun will be fired in Act II."

Where and When

What: "Deathtrap."

Location: Actors Alley Repertory Theatre, 12135 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Friday.

Price: $15.

Call: (818) 508-4200.

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