Theater Review: Deathtrap

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The twists and turns of ‘Deathtrap’
March 8, 2006 12:00 AM
Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” — the 1978 play and the 1982 film — can be seen as the Yanks’ answer to Anthony Shaffer’s earlier “Sleuth” — the 1970 play then 1972 film.
Both cast Michael Caine in the lead; both attempt to outmaneuver a clever audience wise in the ways of the typical whodunnit. Both reduce their cast to the barest minimum, fill their sets with murderous props and work out their suspense with the precision of a classic watchmaker.
“Deathtrap” remains the longest-running Broadway show in history, and it’s the Virtual Theatre Company’s turn to hope we’ve forgotten the twists and turns by now, as it stages the play through Sunday in Victoria Hall.
The company is a splinter cell of regulars from Circle Bar B Dinner Theater making their foray into the downtown theater scene and taking advantage of larger performing spaces. Victoria Hall remains an odd location for a play, with the large gulf (dance floor? orchestral pit?) between the front row and the stage. It’s also a shallow but wide performing space, which can lead to odd blocking.


Director Cybele Foraker has a favorite duo in lead actors Ed Giron and Geren Piltz. She has used their age and size dynamic previously in David Mamet’s “A Life in Theater,” and no doubt she thought that the two would be perfect for Mr. Levin’s classic thriller.
Mr. Giron plays Sidney Bruhl, a writer of stage mysteries whose earliest play made him famous. However, he’s had a string of flops and feels he’s lost it. How fortunate that a struggling writer, Clifford Anderson (Geren Piltz), has sent a first play called “Deathtrap” to get Sidney’s blessing.
Sidney immediately sees that the play would be a smash hit if produced — “even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it,” he tells his skittish wife, Myra (Kathy Marden). Sidney’s mind starts to turn — why not invite Clifford up, kill him, and take credit for the smash success? Myra doesn’t know if Sidney is joking or if he’s serious. Or is Sidney thinking of the plot of a new play, the very play we’re watching unfold on stage?
To tell more about “Deathtrap” would be unfair to those who’ve never seen it. There are double and triple crosses and a plot twist that would have been shocking back in the 1970s but is no big deal now.
There’s a nosy neighbor and psychic, Helga Ten Dorp (Jennifer Gimblin), who pops in to steal scenes and plant red herrings. And there’s Porter Milgram (David Brainard), Sidney’s attorney, who acts as a detective of sorts, unknowingly ratcheting up the tension with his questions and observations.
Mr. Levin’s play aims to make us jump as well as laugh. But to do so requires a well-oiled machine, and on opening night, the Virtual Theatre Company production was still a bit rusty.
Sidney is a difficult role, as he has to fool us (and everybody else) with his true intentions, working backward from the end of the first act to the opening curtain. He must then keep us guessing in the second act to make his sudden shifts of allegiances believable. His motivations are there from the beginning, but by sleight of hand we’re instead following the machinations of the plot and not of Sidney’s mind.
What Mr. Giron winds up doing (and this may be Ms. Foraker’s fault) is to proceed in linear fashion throughout. It’s an odd feeling. We get the sense that the characters are being written as they’re performing, like a cartoon character laying down track as the train they’re on steams on ahead.
At the same time, Mr. Giron appears too removed from the action, too reserved and polished. His attitude explains neither the time before the first murder, nor the space that comes after it.
Mr. Piltz fares better, bringing the sort of earnest trust to his Clifford role that works both in the early scenes and later during his double-cross. Yet there’s also a distance between the two actors that makes Act Two harder to pull off. To explain more would be to spoil the twist, but let’s just say that Mr. Piltz never feels any more than an invited guest into the Bruhl home.
Ultimately, this “Deathtrap” is less a fine-tuned clockwork toy than an assemblage of gears and springs, unwinding slowly.

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