“Deathtrap” Gets All the Laughs and a Fright or Two
“Deathtrap” by Ira Levin is the perennial comedy thriller that opened on Broadway 44 years ago and earned the distinction of being the longest-running comedy-thriller when it closed after four years and nearly 2,000 performances. The Guinness Book of World Records honors the actor Marian Seldes who played the role of Myra Bruhl for every one of the play’s 1,793 Main Stem performances as “most durable actress.” “Most durable” can be said of the play itself which is never far from a community theater’s schedule.
For those who don’t know the plot, it concerns one Sidney Bruhl (Kevin McNamara), a once-successful playwright, who is desperate for his next Broadway comedy-thriller hit when what lands on his desk but the perfect play titled “Deathtrap” by a student (Bill Geltzeiler) who is due to arrive at his remote converted barn studio to discuss the play. No copies exist of the play and as Sydney muses to his wealthy, neurasthenic wife with a weak heart, Myra (Christina Dixon Reeves) could it be possible to dispose of the young playwright and pass the play off as one of his own?
The play in manuscript Sydney and the student, Clifford, are about to work on is a mirror version of the performance you are witnessing “A thriller in two acts. One set, five characters. A juicy murder in Act One, and unexpected developments in Act Two. Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places. Highly commercial.” The hall of mirrors continues when Michael Caine is mentioned as a possibility in the movie or especially fun for ACT fans when Kevin McNamara quotes a line from “Angel Street”….a role which he played on this stage 7 years ago.
The cast could not be bettered. Kevin is as smooth as his brandy with a burnished glow, even if you might want something with a stronger kick, at times. Geltzeiler always seems to have a mad glint in his eye which pushes his Clifford right up to the edge of psychosis but his energy is so welcome. Reeves starts tentatively but jump-starts the evening with her horrified reaction to the first violent act in the middle of Act One which provides one of the evening’s genuine thrills. Joan Meyer swans in as the comic psychic-next-door, Helga ten Dorp, and luxuriates in her stage time, sussing out the crime scene and other transgressions, purring delightedly “In my teenage years, walking with boys…such images!” Michael O’Farrell provides yeoman work as the family lawyer updating Sydney on the family’s fortunes but gets his own comic reversal as well.
The trick with comic thrillers is they have to be played for life or death stakes for the humor to provide relief otherwise it’s just silly. Director Mike McDermott and his seasoned cast score all of the laughs with a small Preview audience but the frights are harder to come by. There’s one terrific murder but the other confrontations need more impact, the fight choreographer was Molly Waters.
It’s all played out on a very attractive set (designed by Peter Kantor) that has the requisite wall hangings of window cards and murder weapons and also some great cognac accents. Props on the handbuilt secretary’s desk, as well. There are unfortunately some serious lighting issues with weak spots center stage and a long stretch in Act Two played in virtual darkness, although the storm effects were persuasive and deservedly spooky. Lighting design by Robert Healy and sound by Anne-Marie Baker. Costumes by Kody Carpenter were well chosen and most attractive. I especially liked Helga’s outfits but everyone looked good and period-appropriate.
“Deathtrap” is a very pleasant evening with some very accomplished theater artists that goes down easy.
Through 5/22 at Albany Civic Theater