Actor Cheryl Willis watched from the sidelines as Steven Hendrickson and Michael Booth rehearsed "Deathtrap." As the scene reached its bizarre conclusion, Willis cackled, "It's so ridiculous."

Audiences have shared much the same reaction to Ira Levin's 1978 comedy-thriller. The play twists in, around and through itself, daring theatergoers to laugh at the absurdities that Levin employs.

Critic Walter Kerr raved about the show's "effrontery" in spoofing the very genre it inhabits.

"It's an entertainment," said Bain Boehlke, who is directing a production that opens Friday at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. "It's part satire, part comedic, and then it has these tensions."

The tensions and twists made "Deathtrap" one of the longest-running plays on Broadway, with 1,800 performances over four years. Boehlke, who enjoys revisiting the classic repertoire at the Jungle, notes that he has never directed the show.

"There's this myth that I love murder mysteries," he said. "I've done two in 25 years."

That doesn't mean he dislikes them, he added, "if they are done well."

For all its popularity — including the 1982 film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve — "Deathtrap" has been a rarity on Twin Cities area stages. Theatre in the Round planned to stage it for the 2008-09 season, but the rights were pulled because of the possibility of a touring company mounting the show.

There have been Minnesota stagings in Alexandria and Bemidji and at Lakeshore Players in White Bear Lake, but none of the medium-sized Twin Cities theaters had taken it on — until now.

Character drives plot

In the Jungle's production, Hendrickson plays the key role of Sidney Bruhl, a playwright whose star has faded. Beset with jealousy when a former student mails him a terrific mystery play, Sidney sets in motion an intricate series set of circumstances that lead the audience one way, then another, and then another. Although the play is so driven by mechanics, Hendrickson said, he also has found a psychological core in Sidney.

"Everyone can understand the feelings of someone who has enjoyed enormous success early in life and has lost that," Hendrickson said. "That can give way to despair and desperation; I think people get that, and it's important that they do."

Understanding Sidney's growing panic explains the extremes to which he goes. And that helps the audience take the ride.

"I don't think it's spoiling the play to say there are many times the audience has to re-evaluate what they've seen" because of Sidney's machinations, Hendrickson said.

Boehlke discusses "Deathtrap" along with "Dial M for Murder" and "Sleuth" as iconic murder mysteries worth bringing to the stage. He might also have mentioned Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" — which is in its 55th year on London's West End. Levin's title is a play on that one.

"Audiences like a mystery play," Boehlke said. "Life itself can at times be seen as a mystery."