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A killer thriller
The Savannah Community Theatre brings 'Deathtrap' to life
David Berlin (standing), Reece Thomas and Mailee Gilbert in 'Deathtrap'

Two wily, articulate men in a drawing room, attempting to out-maneuver one another through tart words and dubious deeds. Blackout. A scream. A murder.

A mystery.

The very blueprint for Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer's hit play from 1970, one of the most devious (and popular) theatrical thrillers in recent memory.

In fact, in all the intervening years the only mystery to raise the bar higher has been Ira Levin's complex Deathtrap, which premiered on Broadway in 1978 and became the longest-running comedy thriller in history.

Deathtrap concerns two wily, articulate men in a drawing room, each a playwright who's bound and determined to out-plot the other.

The play has so many red herrings, trap doors and false leads, it's virtually impossible to talk about it without giving the whole thing away.

Ah, but therein lies the fiendish brilliance of Levin's built-in intricacies.

"People describe it like this: ‘It's a mystery that has a comedic side to it, even though there's a double murder in it,'" says Savannah Community Theatre founder Tom Coleman, who's producing Deathtrap for two weekends at Muse Arts Warehouse. "They just don't tell you who's killed. They say ‘There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot.'"

As soon as Coleman got this production of Deathtrap going, he found himself up to his eyeballs in advance work for the musical Hands of the Spirit, the next SCT show, so he assigned directorial duties to Carl Rosengart, who directed Luv last year under Coleman's auspices.

Much like the classic work of Agatha Christie, Coleman says, Deathtrap never goes out of fashion. "I did this show probably 20 years ago, and audiences loved it," he says. "It still plays and it doesn't feel at all dated."

David Berlin plays Sidney Bruhl, with Reece Thomas as his theatrical adversary, Clifford Anderson (Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve played the characters in the 1982 film version).

Mailee Gilbert has the role of Myra, Bruhl's sickly wife.

"Two-thirds a thriller and one-third a devilishly clever comedy," said Cue magazine. "Suspend your disbelief and be delighted. Scream a little. It's good for you."

This production, Coleman explains, very nearly went off the rails before his company even got started. "The year before last, they decided to revive it in London," he says. "People are going kind of crazy for those revival things. Guys and Dolls has been back 100 times.

"So it turns out it was such a success, they're bringing the revival to Broadway. They pulled the rights for it for two years."

(That's common practice for the rights-holding party, to keep away any and all potential competition.)

"Finally they said, OK, if you can do it now, you can have the rights. So we snuck in under the guidelines, and we had to get a letter of release from New York."

Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff had the roles of Gruhl and Anderson in the West End Deathtrap revival, which ran from September 2010 through January, to strong reviews.

"Their reason for reviving it was ‘OK, we've come into another generation that hasn't seen it,'" says Coleman. "'And perhaps we can pull the people back who've seen it before, because they liked it, and we can interest a new group of people.'"

In the meantime, Coleman, his director and their cast have been telling everyone they know about Deathtrap, and attempting to explain it without giving away and details.

"Everyone says ‘Don't I know that show?' and I'll go ‘Well, tell me what you know,'" says Coleman. "And what they're usually describing to me is Sleuth.

"I go ‘OK, you're close.' But this is a little different."


Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Road

When: At 7:30 p.m. April 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9; 3 p.m. April 3 and 10

Tickets: $10 (Thur) $15 (Sun) $20 (Fri & Sat)

Reservations: (912) 247-4644