Here's the thing about "Deathtrap": You can't really talk about it without spoiling the absolutely forehead-smacking ending for people who haven't seen it. It's like "The Crying Game" or "The Sixth Sense": You think you know what's going on for the thrilling first hour and a half or so, but then playwright Ira Levin rips the blood-stained rug right out from under you. Nothing is as it seems in this murder mystery/psychological thriller opening in previews June 9 at Drury Lane Oakbrook.
In order to keep the show's secrets, Drury Lane has resorted to unprecedented measures — a mass mailing imploring theater-goers to keep mum if they know the secrets of Levin's harrowing 1970s-set chiller. For good measure, the letter also instructs everybody to stay away from the 1982 film version of "Deathtrap."
"If you know what happens, please, please, please, do not tell. And for goodness sakes, don't rent the movie. That's basically what we're telling subscribers," says director William Osetek. "Obviously, that's not something we have to do with other shows."
As the author of "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Stepford Wives," Levin is one of the world's finest horrormeisters. "Deathtrap" is one of his greatest hits: After opening in 1978 on Broadway, it ran for nearly four years. Ever since, it's been a regional and community theater staple second only to Agatha Christie's "Mousetrap" in terms of ubiquity. With five actors, a single set and more twists than Chubby Checker, "Deathtrap" is a hybrid of whipsmart, pitch-black comedy and delectable cat-and-mouse murder mystery.
The show follows unknown dramatist Clifford who sends his latest thriller to a noted Broadway author, Sidney Bruhl, who hasn't had a hit in awhile and plots with his reluctant wife, Myra, to plagerize Clifford's story. Here's what else Osetek can say about the plot: The running time is about two hours.
"It's quite ingenious," says Evanston actor Cindy Gold, who plays a Dutch psychic named Helga ten Dorp. "It's so well written; you don't see what's coming, but when it does, it all fits together perfectly. It was also quite shocking for its time."
Like Osetek, 51, Gold is old enough to remember the era that spawned "Deathtrap" and serves as its setting. Levin's estate is adamant that the show remain firmly rooted in the decade that started with flower children at Golden Gate Park and ended with disco queens at Studio 54. "For the 1970s, 'Deathtrap' was very frank in its depiction of sexuality," notes Gold. "It was groundbreaking."
"It was also an era of appalling bad taste," she adds. "My god, the things we wore. I look back and I don't know what we were thinking."
"Yeah, not a fan," says Osetek of the polyester and leisure-suit couture of the '70s, "But that's the world of the play, and it's great fun." The world of the play is also potentially disturbing, and not just because of the period fashion. "I find I've been thinking a lot about sociopaths lately," says Osetek. "Like, what causes them? Are you born a sociopath? Do you become one? Is it thrust upon you? The whole issue is a bit scary to me."
Scary is good in this case. "I love horror," says Osetek. "I really love to scare the [redacted] out of audiences." Osetek also loves the sheer escapism that "Deathtrap" offers.
"I watch the election coverage and I am filled with dread. Scared, and not in a good way," he says. "Every time I turn on the news I am terrified. Surely there's not a better time to offer people an escape from all that. People want to be terrified, but of something that isn't real. Election season is the perfect time for a show with lots of bodies."
Drury Lane presents 'Deathtrap'
When: June 9–Aug. 14; previews through June 16
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Contact: 630-530-0111; DruryLaneTheatre.com.