Deathtrap

Into the “Deathtrap” and back out with the new

Bag & Baggage balances winking humor and murderous intent to make a meta-theatrical classic feel fresh again.

“Nothing recedes like success,” says the fading playwright at the center of Deathtrap. That’s also true of Ira Levin’s famous 1978 play, one of the most successful thrillers in Broadway history, which ran nearly 1800 performances and became a major 1982 movie success starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Yet you don’t see it staged much by professional theaters these days in spite, or because of, the fact that it pioneered many of the meta-theatrical tricks and winking plot twists common in films and plays ever since.

That’s a challenge for anyone producing Deathtrap today: How do you make what was once so thrillingly outre’ feel fresh?

Bag and Baggage Productions, which produced this new version running through October, also faced its own similar challenge: after a decade of increasing success at Hillsboro’s big, old-school Venetian Theatre, could it maintain that track record in its very different, intimate new space across Main Street, the Vault, which demands a different kind of direction and acting?

I won’t give away the ending (or much of the plot) of Deathtrap, but I’ll tell you upfront the answer to those two questions: in surmounting the second challenge, Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer also solves the first. His new production’s modern directorial sensibility makes a familiar, four-decade old classic feel contemporary again.

The plot twists won’t let you rest: Bag&Baggage Productions presents “Deathtrap” at the Vault Theater in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography

Deathtrap was an early leader in the now-familiar meta-theater subgenre — it’s a play about playwriting. Sidney, a once successful playwright, needs to revive his career. Clifford, a student he’s mentored, wants to jumpstart his own with a promising script he brings to Sidney’s leafy Connecticut suburban home. Sidney’s wealthy wife Myra, while eager to help Sidney return to acclaim, has her doubts about both writers. Their neighbor Helga, a Dutch pop psychic, and Sidney’s lawyer Porter, seemingly innocuous, both play crucial roles in the twisty plotlines. Homicide and humor happen.

That’s enough plot summary, because though Deathtrap is one of those modern mysteries where the audience knows whodunnit, we’re still constantly surprised and delighted by what happens next. That ironic balance between comical and criminal helped make Deathtrap a breakthrough in its day. A production can easily lean too far one way or the other. Make it too slapstick and lose the power of the murder mystery that compels audience interest. Play it too straight and it’s just another dated puzzler without the satirical delight Levin provides in playing with our expectations.

Stage director Palmer is a past master at navigating that fine line between realism and exaggeration, especially in B&B’s entertaining comedies. But doing so in the Vault’s intimate confines demands a much subtler approach. A master of misdirection (in the good, non-hyphenated sense!), Palmer accentuates the sense of unease with expert little touches — a sidelong glance here, a raised eyebrow there, slightly melodramatic music and light cues — that create an atmosphere of what might be called wry ominousness. We’re nervous and chuckling, surprised and knowing, all at the same time. It’s a Deathtrap for the post-Simpsons generation that plays off the fact that the script’s pioneering self-awareness is now common currency in all kinds of entertainment. And the nuances that make it work would have been lost on the distant Venetian Theatre stage. In a post-show talkback, Palmer revealed that he’s wanted to direct Deathtrap here for ages, but knew it wouldn’t work in the oversized Venetian. It’s a small-scale triumph in the Vault.

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Innkeeper by vocation, actor by avocation

Coaster Theatre's Sue Neuer talks about what it's like to perform in a community where everybody really does know your name

I met Sue Neuer some years ago at the front desk of a favorite Cannon Beach hotel. She knew me as the writer frequently on the road for work. I knew her as the innkeeper who tried to accommodate my need for peace and quiet so I could work. It was only later, when she invited me to the Coaster Theatre for the evening’s performance, that I learned that while innkeeping might be Neuer’s day job, her passion is the theater.

On Friday, Neuer opens in her 18th role at the Coaster, starring as Myra Bruhl in Deathtrap, a comedy-thriller by Ira Levin that holds the record (four years) for the longest running play of its genre on Broadway. The play is about a down-and-out playwright who sees hope in a student’s script and devises plans to stage it as his own. “There are a lot of twists and turns,” said Neuer, who plays the playwright’s wife. “Several people die.”

Neuer and I sat down to talk about what it’s like to be an actor in a town where odds are most everybody really does know your name. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Cannon Beach actor Sue Neuer opens in “Deathtrap,” her 18th Coaster Theatre role, on Friday. Photo courtesy: Coaster Theatre Playhouse

How do you juggle community theater — auditions, learning lines, rehearsals, performances — and a full-time job?

Neuer: Fortunately, I’ve had employers who are supporters of me doing theater and I do my own schedule, so I do it around my rehearsal schedule. You have to carve out the time, when it comes to memorizing your lines. I am a procrastinator when it comes to doing that. I record all my lines and listen to them while I am in the car.

Are you recognized locally first as an actor or innkeeper?

I’m very actively involved in the community. I’ve lived here a while (11 years), so people know me for all sorts of reasons. I have tourists come up and say, “Oh, I saw you in this or that play.” But not a lot of locals support the theater. There are some regular patrons, but I would say the majority of people are tourists looking for something to do. We have some visitors who are season ticket holders and plan trips to Cannon Beach based on shows. That’s always fun. We have some guests who try to plan their trips to take in a show while they’re here. There are locals who have never stepped foot in the theater. They think it’s a movie theater. I don’t say we don’t get the local support, but it’s weird — you’re either into theater or you’re not. If you’re not familiar with what it is, you have to be introduced by other people.

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