Deathtrap, Ira Levin's 1978 comedy-thriller, has more twists and turns than Route 9.
The action is set in the study of Sidney Bruhl, in the swanky town of Westport, Connecticut. Sidney, a once-successful playwright of Broadway thrillers, has been beset by a string of flops. The poor man can't write a hit play to save himself, his livelihood, his reputation, or his ego -- all of which are sorely in need of boosting. His supportive wife (emotionally and financially) Myra, tries her best to keep his spirits up, but Sidney is sunk in self-pity. To make matters worse, he has received the copy of a play from a young man who attended a seminar Sidney taught on how to write a thriller. The play, he tells Myra, is a sure-fire winner.
The ever-helpful Myra suggests he help the young man, Clifford Anderson, with the play and take credit as collaborator. Sidney muses it might be better to kill Clilfford and claim the play as his own, eying the collection of antique weapons--guns, daggers, crossbow, axe--that decorate his walls as he says this. An alarmed Myra watches as Sidney calls Clifford and invites him come over that evening to discuss the play, at the same time ascertaining that Clifford has no other copies, has shown no one else the play, and lives alone in a house-sitting situation in a nearby town where he is not known. Sidney picks up Clifford at the train station and the action takes its inevitable course as Sidney murders Clifford in front of a horrified Myra. And that is only the beginning.
Now, the thing about Deathtrap is that it is not a great play and never was, and given that it is twenty-six years old, it feels dated. It has a great plot, a couple of heart-stopping moments, a surprise ending, and some laughs sprinkled along the way to guarantee an entertaining evening. The success of these elements depends on pacing and timing, something this production sorely lacks. Nor does Susan Dillard's direction illuminate some of the subtexts of the play: Myra's addiction to brandy; the homosexual attraction between Sidney and Clifford. These remained so subtle that their import was either lost on the audience or only realized much later in the play.
Furthermore, director Dillard allows her actors to mumble their lines as they stand around and talk-talk-talk so that many of the laughs are lost. Miss Dillard's direction does shine, however, in the action scenes. The pacing and blocking are taut and exciting, and had the audience gasping in horror and surprise.
Nor did the set help the production. Sidney's study is supposedly furnished with antiques. Instead, the furniture looked like it came from yard sales, undercutting the image of a character who married money, achieved financial success on his own, and indulged himself in expensive surroundings.
On the other hand, the appearance of actor Robert Kovak, as the vain, self-centered Sidney, complements the set. His clothes are baggy and in poor taste, and he looks as dusty and worn out as the furniture. Instead of an arrogant sophisticate, we are presented with enervated, lackluster character who slows the play to a snail's pace.
Eva Thiel, who looks and acts as though her character would live in a place like Westport, does the best she can in the thankless role of Myra. It is a confusingly written role that has an actress going from opposition to support to opposition of her husband with no transitions. This is the third production of the play I have seen, including the original, and no actress has managed these emotional transitions smoothly.
James Meador is appealing as Clifford Anderson. He captures the attractive and seemingly naive character of the young playwright, while at the same time allowing a darker side to show through.
In supporting roles, Ali LeMort plays Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorf, the Bruhl's neighbor. She arrives on stage with the force of a hurricane, enlivening the pacing and making the audience sit up. It is in her character that much of the comedy resides. Unfortunately, she uses an accent so heavy that most of what she says is unintelligible. Nor was Fuller Moore as Porter, the Bruhl's lawyer, much better. Playing pompous doesn't mean you have to be incomprehensible.
As I said earlier, this isn't a great play, but it can be a very entertaining play and a fun night at the theater. While this production will entertain, it could have been so much better.