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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
Monday night, I followed another writer whose career is in a downward spin. That's mystery playwright Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin's Deathtrap. While Bruhl's wealthy wife Myra would probably be happy to have a child with him, all he wants to father is another Broadway worthy play. He'd also rather be heir to her estate than help her produce one.
Except for the fact that both Legacy and Deathtrap revolve around blocked writers they have nothing in common. Legacy is a new play (my personal preference for summer theater fare) having its world premiere at WTF"s Nikos Stage. Deathtrap is a revival of Levin's 1978 phenomenally successful thriller. It played 1,793 performances on Broadway, was made into a popular movie in 1982 and has been revived all over the world. By the time Deathtrap arrived on Broadway murder mysteries an established uber-popular genre, spearheaded by Agatha Christie's mysteries, Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth and Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder. With the genre continuing to expand and evolve in print, on stage, and the small and big screen, Deathtrap is not quite the shocker it once was but more a fun look at an archetypal example of a role model for those following in the footsteps of these trend setting writers. In short, it nowadays risks being viewed as too dated for audiences used to more up-to-date mysteries loaded with modern gadgetry.
Undaunted by the risk of being seen as too dated, director Aaron Mark and his actors and designers have done their best to mislead and mystify even the most seasoned thriller watchers — and make them gasp at least once, even if they know what the next turn in the twisty plot will bring. Most importantly, they've provided a wonderfully authentic, finely detailed production.
Since this is a thriller that depends on all manner of unexpected surprises, even from murder victims, newcomers to the play may read on assured that I won't be a spoiler. Naturally,steering clear of plot specifics doesn't leave me a lot to write about. however, I can tell you something about the setup: The play unfolds in a barn attached to the Bruhls' Westport, Connecticut house converted into a rustic, memorabilia filled study. Here we find Sidney (Gregg Edelman) reading the play within the play sent to him by Clifford Anderson (Tom Pecinka). Murder most foul expert that he is, Bruhl decides to lure Anderson to Westport and, you guessed it, do what he must to make Deathtrap his own. But Anderson proves to be as sly and duplicitous as Bruhl and his wife Myra (Alison Fraser) in for a surprise of her own. These are clearly complicated relationships, especially between the two men.
Greg Edelman, best known for his roles in Broadway musicals, is a fine Sidney Bruhl, as is Pecinka's Clifford Anderson. Alison Fraser's Myra is over the top as intended, though perhaps just a bit too much so.
But the true star is Randall Parson's set, atmospherically lit by Alan Edwards and with J Hagenbuckle's creepy sound design to heighten the tension. Sidney's collection of deadly weapons on all walls makes it clear that there'll be plenty of opportunity to validate what's become known as Chekhov's theatrical rule: If a gun is seen in the first act it should be fired before the curtain comes down. Besides guns that could be fired there are sabers to stab with and handcuffs to entrap. With the Berkshire Theatre Group's new managing director Tony Simotes handling the fight choreography rest assured that there'll be several fiery scenes involving some of these weapons.
There are two cast members in addition to the pivotal trio — Helga Ten Dorp (Debra Jo Rupp), a nosy neighbor and psychic, and lawyer Porter Milgrim (Eric Hill). Both were always device characters to neatly make Levin's thematic point that hunger for riches and fame will have all sorts of people capable of murderous double-crossings. And so they are here, though the psychic Helga struck me as more unbelievable and extraneous than ever. However, these characters do exemplify the virtues of a tightly constructed script in which everything is neatly tied up.
Though there's a fairly obvious homosexual tension between Bruhl and Anderson at the end of the first act, it was not until the movie that Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve ended that act with a history making kiss. That kiss, though not in the script, found its way into many regional stage productions. With Ira Levin's sons currently keeping a tight rein on how their father's work will be presented (a while back they actually closed down a production for misconstruing their father's intent).
I don't know what Rip Van Winkle land the Levin brothers live in now that gay characters who go a lot further than kissing are hardly eyebrow raisers. At any rate, one can't blame director Mark from playing it safe. As the song goes "you must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss" and this one is not all that necessary to the who's on top power struggle that drives the men's actions. Besides, the theater goers who'll most enjoy this revival would be more likely to miss old-fashioned touches like the push-button telephone and manual typewriter. They'll enjoy the meta-theatricality of the play within and are unlikely to have lengthy postmortem discussions as to whether it's more acceptable to watch a play with multiple cold-blooded murders than that kiss.
With fewer plays scheduled this season, you have a bit longer than usual to make up your own mind whether Deathtrap can still keep you at the edge of your seat.