July 10, 2019

A Playwright Threatens to Murder a Younger Rival in “Deathtrap;” Princeton Summer Theater Presents Mind-Bending, Darkly Comic Thriller

“DEATHTRAP”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Deathtrap.” Directed by Annika Bennett, the play runs through July 21 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Sidney Bruhl, a playwright (C. Luke Soucy, left) implies to his wife, Myra (Kathryn Anne Marie) that he may kill a younger rival, in order to steal his script — leaving Myra to try to determine whether or not Sidney is joking. (Photo by Kirsten Traudt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Summer Theater (PST) states that the mission of its 2019 season is to “explore love in all its forms.” The company’s previous production, Falsettos, was an obvious fit for this theme. That musical’s near-adolescent protagonist sings about his ambivalence toward love, but grows to feel compassion for his father’s terminally ill lover, despite the extent to which the latter disrupts the boy’s family.

In this context Deathtrap (1978), currently presented by PST, is a somewhat curious choice. This cerebral, darkly comic thriller by Ira Levin (1929-2007) — the author of novels such as A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Stepford Wives — chiefly is characterized by urbane banter, professional jealousy, and violence. There are brief displays of physical affection between characters, but to the extent that the theme of love is explored, it is subtle and confined to individual moments, rather than overarching.

Immediately the audience sees Jeffrey Van Velsor’s elegant, lavishly decorated set, which includes French doors, a fireplace, and a hallway that makes us wish we could see the rooms beyond it. We are in the study of Sidney Bruhl, a playwright. A bright red sofa and curtains contrast with the dark green walls, which are covered with handcuffs; posters advertising Sidney’s past productions; and an arsenal of weapons that includes guns, axes, and a mace.

Sidney enters, wearing a red cloak and black vest, with a white shirt and cravat; he looks like he would not be out of place in the Victorian era. His first piece of business is to spend several seconds adjusting the brightness of his chandelier, suggesting that he likes to control things, and change them. Megan Berry’s lighting creates some striking tableaux and enhances the dramatic tension.

While Myra, Sydney’s wife, busies herself preparing drinks, Sidney reads aloud the first pages of a manuscript he has received from Clifford Anderson, a younger playwright who attended a seminar given by Sidney. To his annoyance Sidney finds great potential in his former student’s play, which is titled Deathtrap.

Myra remarks that Sidney should be pleased that a student has authored such a successful script. He responds, “For the first time in 11 years of marriage darling: drop dead,” admitting, “I’m green with envy. I’d like to beat the wretch over the head with the mace there … and send the thing off under my own name.”

Later Sidney adds, “I may be devious and underhanded enough to be a successful murderer, but not … a Broadway producer,” when Myra recommends that he offer to produce Clifford’s play. But at Myra’s suggestion he offers to collaborate with Clifford, and invites the younger man to visit him.

C. Luke Soucy brings panache to the role of Sidney. He has commanding stage presence, and his melodramatic line delivery keeps the audience guessing about Sidney’s motivations, and the sincerity of his threats.

This is well matched by Kathryn Anne Marie’s graceful, coquettish performance as Myra. Like Soucy, she takes care not to give too much away too soon; her appraising gaze and soothing, reserved line readings build suspense as to Myra’s ultimate reaction to the antics that will unfold around her.

Sidney picks up Clifford at the train station, and the two arrive at the Bruhl home. Clifford makes an effort to be deferential, but criticizes one of Sidney’s plays. Myra hastily makes a concerted effort to broker a partnership between the two, urging Sidney to put aside a play about next-door neighbor Helga ten Dorp, a psychic who “finds murderers.”

Despite Myra’s prodding, Clifford abruptly responds that he is disinterested in collaboration, expressing a wish to try his luck selling Deathtrap as written. Sidney retorts that he never would put aside The Drowning Wife, his own work in progress.

Sidney exhibits a pair of handcuffs that supposedly belonged to Houdini, and persuades Clifford to try them on. When Clifford seems unable to remove the restraints, Sidney makes a show of looking for the key — and then appears to use the distraction to strangle Clifford, as Myra screams for him to stop.

Myra’s consistent effort to be a supportive, calming influence is the element that most strongly supports the inclusion of Deathtrap in a season whose mission is to examine love. There are moments between Sidney and Clifford that hint at an idiosyncratic bond, even tenderness; but that relationship’s predominant — and ultimate — nature is adversarial.

To the role of Clifford, Dylan Blau Edelstein brings much of the youthful, sincere charm with which he infused the character of Whizzer in Falsettos. The cast is capably rounded out by Abby Melick as Helga, who visits the Bruhl home when she envisions an aura of pain emanating from Sidney’s study; and by Justin Ramos as Porter Milgrim, Sidney’s suspicious lawyer.

Director Annika Bennett gets strong performances out of the cast, and the staging lets Sidney’s apparent murder of Clifford be the surprise it needs to be. Bennett also has a good eye for balance of movement; she often places Sidney at his desk, to anchor our eyes, while Myra swiftly glides around the stage.

Where the direction could improve the production is by ensuring that all of the design elements immediately place the audience in the show’s era. Jules Peiperl’s costumes are attractive, but dramaturgically they present ambiguities. Certainly they are opulent, and consistent with the color palette employed by the set. Sidney’s bright red cloak resembles the sofa and curtains, in keeping with that character’s bold, rather diabolical personality.

However, almost all of the outfits are as ornate as that worn by Sidney, which is unhelpful in distinguishing the characters or establishing a specific time period.

Levin’s script contains cultural references, particularly the musical The Magic Show (1974), which place Deathtrap in the 1970s. The costumes neither support this setting nor oppose it by presenting a precise alternative, but echo multiple decades.

Like Sidney, Clifford and Porter wear outfits that evoke the Victorian era, especially due to Clifford’s cravat and Porter’s watch chain. Helga’s costume, particularly her headband, is reminiscent of the 1920s. Only Myra, with her slick leather pants, looks like she belongs in the 1970s. The costumes are the creation of a talented designer, but greater consistency of style would heighten their effectiveness.

Deathtrap earned four Tony nominations, including Best Play, in the course of its four-year run on Broadway. Princeton Summer Theater’s production has enjoyable performances and attractive visuals. Mystery fans likely will be entertained, as will those who enjoy the play-within-a-play genre.

However, there are areas in which the production’s intentions could be clearer. As an acerbic, melodramatic thriller Deathtrap is engaging — especially in the first act. As a glimpse at a specific time period, and as an exploration of love, this play is somewhat perplexing.

Deathtrap will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through July 21. For tickets, show times, and further information call (732) 997-0205 or visit http://www.princetonsummertheater.org/deathtrap.