It was a dark and stormy night. A shot rang out. The butler did it. That's about all the genre expertise you need going into Deathtrap, Ira Levin's low-key but convoluted murder mystery.

Playwright Sidney "Four Flops" Bruhl (David Bass) wrote a hit years ago, but he's lost his mojo and now lives off wife Myra's (Sarah Benz-Phillips) fortune. Thrillers haven't been popular stage fare for a while, and Bruhl can't break out of last decade's format. Young Clifford Anderson (Daniel Cooksley) sends Bruhl a promising script, and soon we descend into a dark and deeply self-referential thriller.

From the title of the play to the timing of its intermission, nothing about the evening is completely contained within the fourth wall; by the second act, you half-suspect that genuine audience members will be revealed as incidental characters.

Tim DeBaun's direction projects a certain sense of detachment. Bass exudes quiet desperation, and when the violence lurking behind the scenes pops forth, it really does shock. Cooksley forms an endearing and believably cocky young character with plans far beyond his stint under Bruhl's tutelage. Paula Keenan slathers on a Danish accent as the psychic Helga Ten Dorp, appearing whenever foreshadowing is called for. Benz-Phillips' Myra is outwardly nice enough, but deep inside lurks a trophy wife gone bad. Jim Bruner (still swaddled in mutton chops after Theatre Downtown's recent A Christmas Carol) plays lawyer Porter Milgrim, who gets one of the play's funniest lines with a reference to William Rehnquist.

Deathtrap is a likable if contrived exercise. Its strength lies in showing why thrillers don't fare well these days: There are surprises, but convenient miracles arise, from telephone calls to handy electrical storms to Harry Houdini handcuffs. We can tolerate some labored coincidences in a stage play, but if that's all that drives it forward, it becomes an intellectual acrobat act. Bruhl himself sums up the play near the open: five characters, one intermission, a juicy murder in the first act and delicious complications in the second. You can't go wrong with the formula, but it is a formula.

Through Feb. 12
Theatre Downtown

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