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Carefully crafted DEATHTRAP delights intrepid audience; only two shows left at Lancaster Opera House!

THE BASICS:  DEATHTRAP, a “comedy-thriller” by Ira Levin directed by Katie Mallinson, starring Paul Todaro, Lindsay Brandon Hunter, Joe Isgar, Kathleen Rooney, and Steve Jakiel has only two more performances, Saturday January 26 at 7:30, Sunday at 2:30 at the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Avenue, Lancaster (683-1776). Runtime: about two hours with one intermission (with great snacks including green “Grinch Popcorn”)

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  In a plot worthy of Hitchcock, the once successful playwright Sidney Bruhl (played by Paul Todaro) has lost his inspiration, but when a former student, Clifford Anderson (Joe Isgar), sends him a draft of a play that Bruhl feels has tremendous box office potential, he hatches a plot to claim it as his own, after “disposing” of his student. His wife, Myra Bruhl (Lindsay Brandon Hunter) is very upset by this and matters aren’t improved when psychic Helga ten Dorp (Kathleen Rooney) comes to the house with dire warnings. Bruhl’s lawyer, Porter Milgrim (Steve Jakiel) is equally concerned. To say more would spoil the broth.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: DEATH TRAP was one of the longest running plays on Broadway (1978 Best Play Tony nominee) and with good reason. It has more twists and turns than a Six Flags waterslide, and whatever you think you know, you’ve got it wrong. Adding to the fun is that throughout the evening, things slide into the “play within a play” genre, then back out, then back in, to the delight of the intrepid audience which braved the snows of Buffalo to catch one of the final performances.

The direction by Katie Mallinson is sure-footed. In a thriller that would be, of course, absolutely necessary, but when you add in comedic elements, the difficulty is ratcheted up. Not a problem for Ms. Mallinson, with her MFA in Dramaturgy from Harvard, who has recently shown her deft hand in Irish Classical’s DESIGN FOR LIVING, and Road Less Traveled’s CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLY, THE NETHER and DINNER WITH FRIENDS. She is one of those local treasures whose name on the credits says “must go.”

The name Katie Mallinson says “go” but the name Paul Todaro says “go, even in the snow storm.” Finally, after too many years, here was a chance to see Paul Todaro on stage again, the Buffalo born actor who, after wonderful performances at the Kavinoky, Irish Classical, and especially as the painter Mark Rothko in RED at 710 Main, went to work in Pittsburgh for a while, and has been quietly teaching at Niagara University, and spending his time playing bass fiddle in the Western Swing band “The Skiffle Minstrels” when, IMHO, he should be on stage.

Well, here he was, and he’s still got it.

And, sure, Paul Todaro is the lead character, Sidney Bruhl, but this five character work (the ideal number of on-stage characters for a thriller as “Professor” Bruhl has taught his student) would fall flat without a strong cast, including Lindsay Brandon Hunter as the supportive wife, the very tall but surprisingly agile for a big guy Joe Isgar as the student, and long-time Buffalo favorites Kathleen Rooney, who excels at playing slightly dotty characters here appearing as the psychic Helga ten Dorp, and the solid, reassuring Steve Jakiel as the family lawyer, Porter Milgram. What a cast Director Mallinson assembled.

If there is a ‘sixth man’ on the stage, it’s the set by David Dwyer aided and abetted by Nicholas Quinn’s lighting and sound design.

If there is a “sixth man” on the stage, it’s the set by David Dwyer aided and abetted by Nicholas Quinn’s lighting and sound design. Now, to be sure, the set elements are dictated in one of the “play within a play” sequences (fireplace upstage right, French doors upstage left) but they were realized with such care and devotion that they approached Shaw Festival quality. That’s not often the case with budget-conscious Buffalo theaters, so when it happens, it’s worth noting. Whoever, and I’m assuming it was Quinn, came up with the entr’acte music, well done, well done. I couldn’t place it exactly, but if you’ve ever seen an old Hollywood mystery thriller from the 1940s to the 1960s with scores by such masters as Dmitri Tiomkin (“Dial M for Murder”) or Max Steiner (all those black and white Bogart movies) or Miklos Rosza (“Double Indemnity”) or Bernard Herrmann (“Vertigo”) you’ve heard this music before and you immediately know what’s coming.

The fight direction by Adriano Gatto is quite believable and Mr. Gatto was certainly busy in this play with multiple action sequences. The costumes designed by Lise Harty were character appropriate and special kudos to Kirkland Gilmer for all those props, stage managed by Robyn Baun. All in all, this entire production seemed like a labor of love.

Photos courtesy Lancaster Opera House

UP NEXT: David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr.’s musical BABY, about three expecting couples, February 15 to March 3. Then Cole Porter’s ANYTHING GOES, March 22 to April 7.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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