Reviewed by George Basler
Take five reprehensible — or eccentric — characters, mix with some humor and a dose of malice, stir well, and you have Deathtrap, which opened this past weekend (Oct. 29-30) at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott.
While it’s a bit dated, the comic thriller by Ira Levin has enough twists, turns and red herrings to keep audience members guessing and entertained over the course of two acts.
The Cider Mill production, offered by BLAST (Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier), is a skillful one that places equal weight on the wit and gasps in Levin’s play as it affectionally sends up the plot devices of conventional thrillers.
Deathtrap, which opened on Broadway in 1978, was a solid hit, receiving four Tony Award nominations, including best play. It remains the longest running comic thriller in Broadway history, with 1,800 performances, and is still a staple of community theaters.
Obviously, that doesn’t happen unless a play is a real audience pleaser.
One of the notable things about Deathtrap is how it skillfully winks at its audience. The second act, for example, relies on the time-worn cliché of having the action take place during a storm, complete with lightning, thunder and flashing lights. It’s corny as all-get-out but, in BLAST’s capable hands, it’s delightful corn.
The show also plays with the audience by having the onstage characters continually discuss and critique a play with a plot that matches the real play that the audience is watching. The self-referencing is a clever and fun device that Levin pulls off well.
Deathtrap begins with Sidney Bruhl (Nick DeLucia), an aging, dyspeptic playwright badly in need of a hit, at home with his emotionally brittle wife, Myra (Jean Graham), who has a heart condition.
When Sidney receives a promising script from a young playwright, Clifford Anderson (Ryan Canavan), he invites the young man to come over and receive some helpful hints. But Myra, who has been financially supporting Sidney between flops, worries that he has darker motives. The action takes off from there with nothing as it seems.
As Sidney, DeLucia gives a thoughtful performance that is never mannered. The character is quite evil, of course, but also has a lot of bitterly humorous lines. DeLucia’s comic timing is spot-on as he tosses off these lines. He also conveys a sense of malice without ever going over the top.
Canavan, meanwhile, give a suitably cold-blooded performance as the young playwright whose malice is hidden under an “aw shucks” exterior. Graham is fine as Sidney’s long-suffering wife although the character, as written, is an afterthought to the two male characters.
Besides this threesome, Deathtrap features two other characters: Helga Ten Dorp (Amy Hathaway Gilbert), an eccentric Dutch clairvoyant, who keeps showing up unannounced to broadcast that she feels a sense of danger at the Bruhl homestead, and Porter Milgrim (Mark Durkee), Sidney’s lawyer.
The broadly written Helga character has the potential to be annoying, but Hathaway Gilbert provides an enjoyably comic turn, complete with a heavy Dutch accent. She milks the stereotype for a lot of laughs.
The lawyer role is a smaller one, but Durkee does have one juicy scene at the end of the play that he performs with great relish. There will not be a spoiler alert here except to say that the scene provides a real twist that puts a strong finish to the evening’s nefarious doings.
One of Deathtrap’s prominent features is a complex set, complete with old-fashion weapons prominently displayed on the walls of Sidney’s workspace. Mary E. Donnelly did a masterful job in designing the set for the Cider Mill Stage production.
Applause also goes to Laura Renae Hensley, lighting designer, and Michael Kane, sound designer, whose work heightened the menacing mood, especially during the storm scene in the second act.
Director Kate Murray stages the play’s twists and turns effectively. The shocking moments are pretty darn shocking, just as they should. She and Rob Egan, BLAST’s artistic director, also found/created props that aren’t just there as decorations. Draw your own conclusions.
Deathtrap has its flaws. The first 15 minutes, or so, are overly talky and slow. Levin could have tightened the action. There is also a gay element that might have seemed shocking in 1978 but is embarrassingly trite these days.
But the Cider Mill Stage production proves that solid thrillers can still provide an evening of fun.
IF YOU GO: Deathtrap will continue at 7:30 p.m. this Friday through Sunday (Nov. 5-7) at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $25; visit www.cidermillstage.com.