Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2006

Ira Levin’s Deathtrap is the uber-murder mystery play. Not only do three out of the five characters end up dead by the final curtain, but two of them take turns murdering, or threatening to murder, each other over and over again. During its 1978-1982 run in New York City it became the longest-running mystery play by an American playwright in Broadway history, with 1,809 performances.

This is really a “Who Wrote It” rather than a “Whodunnit.” Deathtrap is not only the title of the play you are seeing but also the title of the play that causes all the troubles on stage. By the end the show the remaining two characters are still dukeing it out over who will write the fictional Deathtrap – a sure-fire moneymaker just like its real-life counterpart.

The action takes place in the Connecticut study of has-been murder mystery playwright Sidney Bruhl (Anthony Crep) where he and his wife Myra (Lisa Margolin) debate whether or not Sidney should offer to collaborate with a promising young student of his, Clifford Anderson (Robert McCaffrey), on the titular play. A Dutch crime-solving psychic, Helga Ten Dorp (Donna Gould Carsten), who is staying next door for a rest cure, stops by and senses great pain in the room which is hardly surprising since the walls are literally covered with weapons – ancient and modern – some of which are authentic and some of which have been used on stage in Sidney’s plays. As the bodies begin to pile up, Sidney’s attorney Porter Milgrim (John Trainor) gets called in to the mix.

I will not attempt to describe the plot because that would give everything away, and also because there are a great many red herrings which seem completely plausible for a while before being revealed as less than the truth. If thrillers are your thing, “Deathtrap” is a top-notch thriller.

Unfortunately, under the direction of Philip C. Rice, this is not a top-notch production of Deathtrap. Crep is too young to be a convincing Sidney, and he and McCaffrey seem devoid of any passion for anything, even their playwriting. Margolin is a nervous wreck as Myra. I don’t see how she could have lived 13 minutes in that marriage, let alone 13 years. Carsten is over the top loopy as Helga Ten Dorp. I would have enjoyed her as good comic relief except that Crep and McCaffrey barely generated any tension for me to crave relief from. Trainor plays a role that Levin pretty much states is superfluous, there solely to provide the ideal murder-mystery total of five characters.

This lack of energy and tension in a well-crafted play fairly crackling with both must be the fault of the director, or the result of a complete break-down in communication between the actors and the director. McCaffrey was especially weak, seeming resigned to both the heinous acts he was called on to perform and the repeated attempts on his life. Of course this is all make-believe and we come to a murder-mystery expecting guns to be fired, axes to be waved, and necks to be strangled, but the actors involved have to at least pretend to find these acts unexpected and alarming or what’s the point. We know they are not really dead but we like to be frightened into thinking they could be.

Margolin, on the other hand, shrieked with such repeated regularity at each attack that you could have used her to time an egg. I am sure that actual witnesses to heinous crimes sound pretty lame – I could hear myself going off like a screaming cuckoo clock under those circumstances – but this is the theatre. Surely Margolin and Rice could have come up with some more creative and less annoying ways of expressing horror.

Sidney’s study is supposed to be in a converted stable attached to an old Connecticut farmhouse. Abe Phelps has designed a plausible set with the requisite exposed beams and a fireplace “practical to the extent that paper can be burned in it.”

Jacci Fredenburg’s costumes are fine – Deathtrap takes place in 1978 in Westport, Connecticut, a town where L.L Bean and Talbot’s have set the style for decades. But why-oh-why has she sewn those two huge dumb buttons on to Margolin’s skirt? It is obvious not now nor has it ever been a button-down skirt, and if it was two big honking buttons wouldn’t keep it together during the average housewifely duties Myra must perform. And the upper button is exactly crotch height – X-marks the spot – which is embarrassing and pointless. No one in the play is at all interested in Myra’s crotch and there is no need to call any attention to it.

I am sure that all the legions of murder-mystery fans will flock to this production and have a fabulous time. Shows like this are bullet-proof, and “Deathtrap” is a particularly perfect specimen of its genre. If only someone on the stage could muster up the energy this could be an enjoyable evening of thrills.

Deathtrap runs through July 23 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. Performances are on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 & 8:30 p.m., and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20.00 for all evening performances, and $18.00 for the Sunday matinee. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. There is obviously violence in this show, but not worse than kids seen on a regular basis in films and on TV. I would say it is suitable for ages 10 and up. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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