CLEARWATER — An artist who has lost his touch can be a dangerous thing.
In Deathtrap, Hat Trick Theatre's production of an Ira Levin play, that menace is compounded by the central character's knack for writing hit murder mysteries.
What happens when such a talent goes sour but ambition stays sharp?
That is the trap that will snare audiences in the first production for Hat Trick as the resident theater company at Ruth Eckerd Hall's Murray Theatre. Levin, the author of Rosemary's Baby, has built a play within a play, one that starts with the admiring but competitive relationship between legendary playwright Sidney Bruhl and a protege.
The play, directed by Hat Trick artistic director Jack Holloway, moves quickly and with roller-coaster twists, set off the moment Clifford Anderson, a former student who has become a playwright, enters Bruhl's secluded home outside New York. Bruhl has seen part of a manuscript for Anderson's new play, Deathtrap, and is jealous.
Myra Bruhl, Sidney's wife, knows her husband well enough to worry. She is inclined to worry a lot anyway, which is part of this play's wicked humor.
Helga Ten Dorp, the Bruhls' nosy and clairvoyant neighbor, complicates Sidney's double dealing as the action winds on. A couple of times, the dialogue pretty much gives the audience a sly wink, as one character or another alludes to being on a "stage" or people in the seats.
The audience gets drawn into the paranoia that eventually suffuses all of the characters, an atmosphere sharpened with an exquisite set of a living room, with a fireplace and open beam ceilings, and den by Kristen Kochanik Garza. And what more could heighten the pre-Halloween mood than a creepy array of medieval weaponry on every wall, with gleaming swords and daggers and pistols courtesy of Matthew Gaither.
Will we somehow be targeted?
You don't know the answer to that question or many of the others that spring up through both acts.
The evening is indispensably helped along by solid performances by the principles. Brian Shea turns Sidney into an antihero at once loathsome and endearing. If at times he seems not entirely convincing, well, the joke might be on you.
Jamie Jones pairs off nicely with Shea as the strapping, younger Anderson, a wholesome fellow who also could surprise. Betty-Jane Parks turns in a wonderfully neurotic portrayal of Myra Bruhl, a character whose sweetness also makes her overmatched.
Dana Barth Kovar has her moments as the psychic next door, though her German accent at times seems heavy-handed. If that's heavy-handed, then Edward Gomez, who plays Bruhl's lawyer might as well be wearing lead gloves.
Take it as expected, considering the varying levels of experience in the cast — and enjoy Deathtrap, a promising beginning for Hat Trick in its new home.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.