A comedy-mystery about triple murder; a filthy-funny R-rated puppet show; and a gentle, amusing piece about the unlikely bond between a middle-aged gay dance instructor and a dying Southern Baptist widow—three plays, three small theaters and more evidence of the diversity and depth of talent on Dallas' always-busy stages.

In a trifecta of tiptop productions, the big surprise is Deathtrap, the 30-year-old Ira Levin whodunit reborn at Pocket Sandwich Theatre as a stylish, sexy comic deconstruction of the thriller genre. Nothing is as it seems or goes as expected in this quick-witted but chilling farce about ruthless ambition. The plot is a warped Venn diagram of overlapping relationships, guilty suspects and bloodcurdling crimes.

Forget Sidney Lumet's dud movie version starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon. Better to experience Deathtrap live, even at little old Pocket, which tries to get by technically with miscued thunderclaps and lighting more suited to a bingo parlor than the play's Connecticut country house setting. At least director Cindee Mayfield has done slick work baiting the audience with five good actors who get into their groove right away and stay in it all night. At the performance reviewed, the lure of the action and flow of dialogue had the crowd so rapt that when a silhouette suddenly popped up backlit against the set's French doors, the place erupted in a chorus of screams that took several moments to subside. Delightful.

Deathtrap for cutie Trista Wyly, between Dennis Millegan 
(left) and Beau Trujillo
Rodney Dobbs
Deathtrap for cutie Trista Wyly, between Dennis Millegan (left) and Beau Trujillo

Details

Deathtrap continues through September 26 at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Call 214-821-1860.

Coppertone III: Asylum continues through September 19 at The Ochre House. Call 214-826-6273.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks continues through September 20 at Theatre Too. Call 214-871-3300.

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That's the fun of Deathtrap, which takes all the clichés of murder mystery plays—intricate plotting, contrived theatrics, glib characters—and places them in plain view. "Drop dead," snipes one character to another shortly before that very thing happens.

Levin, writer of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, may have created his alter ego in Deathtrap's droll leading man, Sidney Bruhl (played at Pocket with oily sneers by Dennis Millegan). Sidney's a master of stage thrillers who hasn't had a hit in 18 years and needs one soon. Through him, Levin fires an arsenal of satirical shots at writers who take themselves too seriously. "Nothing recedes like success," Sidney cracks. He later threatens to beat someone to death with Roget's Thesaurus.

The worm turns for Sidney when he gets a script in the mail from an eager writing student, Clifford Anderson (Beau Trujillo, looking every inch the conniving gigolo). The young man's play is so perfect it tips Sidney from professional jealousy to thoughts of homicide. What if he invited Clifford for a visit, made sure the kid brought all existing versions of the manuscript (mentions of "carbon copies" instantly carbon-date the play to pre-laptop era) and then killed him and stole his work?

Sidney's wife, the excitable and independently wealthy Myra (played with hair-trigger jitters by the wonderful Trista Wyly), comes around to the efficiency of the scheme. But when Clifford actually shows up in the living room, her resolve and her unhealthy heart weaken.

Two supporting characters complicate matters further: Helga Ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic played by Angela Wilson with a loopy accent and a flair for getting laughs on exit lines; and Porter Milgrim, a dour attorney played by Rodney Dobbs (co-founder of Pocket, husband of this play's director and designer of the pine-paneled scenery strewn with medieval weaponry). Helga gets bad vibes in Sidney's house. Porter suspects Clifford of ripping off ideas from Sidney.

Revealing more would only defuse some high-voltage jolts. It's a bit early for Halloween horror stories. So think of Deathtrap as Pocket's killer pre-season warm-up.

What Matthew Posey is up to over at his Ochre House theater space is beginning to make more sense to some of us who didn't quite get it at first. With Coppertone III: Asylum, the third installment in his series of original short comedies about a green-headed puppet-man named Coppertone Jones, he and the members of his Balanced Almond acting company really click. Call it alternative theater or just low-budget whimsy, it's a fresh and challenging piece of pure performance art.

In just over an hour, Asylum (R-rated for rude language) sends up the proscribed shibboleths of psychotherapy by pitting a trio of mentally ill junkyard Muppets against a vicious human nurse.

Coppertone (puppeteered bunraku-style by Posey) wakes up in the Sunny Brook Sanitarium, unsure why he's been committed, though the wooden rod rammed horizontally through his skull might be a clue. In the day room, he meets Burny (Trenton Stephenson, using Will Ferrell's Harry Caray voice), a burn victim still smoldering under his bandages, and Nickels (Josh Jordan), a quivering polyphobic. They all quake in their slippers in the presence of Nurse Janbonne (Elizabeth Evans), who wields a riding crop, a syringe the size of a tire iron and golf ball-size pills she jams up their nether regions.

The puppets are colorful, low-art masterpieces constructed of rubber kitchen gloves, papier mâché, Styrofoam and glued-on doll's eyes that take on eerily human expressions. The actors wear black jumpsuits and hoods, their puppet characters jutting out in front of them like appendages. Funny how quickly the audience focuses on the puppets' faces and not on the men behind them.

There is a plot in Asylum. United against their Nurse Ratched, the puppet patients help each other find some semblance of recovery. In the poignant opener of the second act, Coppertone sings a plaintive "What Kind of Fool Am I?," his little green face straining upward to reach high notes. You'll swear there are tears in those white plastic eyes.

The poignancy is more contrived, but still rather enjoyable, in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, the second show of the new season at Theatre Too (below Theatre Three in The Quadrangle). Richard Alfieri's transparent two-hander matches a middle-aged by-the-hour dance instructor (Bob Hess, believably Terpsichorean) with a reclusive widow (Elly Lindsay, glowing under her corona of white hair). She hires him for six weeks of tangos and foxtrots in her Florida condo—more out of loneliness than a desire to polish ballroom technique.

Over six short scenes and an epilogue, the characters build an odd but genuine friendship. He's flamboyantly gay, which challenges her "hate the sin, love the sinner" brand of benign bigotry. And he's good at calling the old lady on her numerous lies, which include some sad family secrets and finally an admission of recurring health problems.

The magical touches are many in this production, but they come out of the onstage partnership of two skilled actors, not much from the spotty script, which is short on logical transitions and long on bad jokes about "Ensure daiquiris" and how 9:30 is midnight for the elderly.

It could easily devolve into "Dancing With Miss Daisy," but graceful, thoughtful work by director Terry Dobson, choreographer Michael Serrecchia and the cast, Hess and Lindsay, keeps this light-in-its-loafers comedy from stumbling.

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