When I was 18 or so, Deathtrap occupied a special place in my heart. As a budding playwright, I thought Ira Levin's comic thriller was the bee's knees. As an actor, which I then was, I relished the plummy richness of its central roles. As icing on the youthful cake, Deathtrap was the first Broadway play I attended on my first trip to New York.
There were other shows I wanted to see, plays whose scripts I hadn't read. So what drew me to the cozy Music Box theater that night was the production's then current star, a favorite since the release of the 1776 movie several years earlier. John Cullum was, and is, one of our national treasures. And he did something in Deathtrap that absolutely enchanted me.
It fell at the moment when the tapped-out mystery playwright Sidney Bruhl finally got his hands on the manuscript that his protégé Clifford Anderson has been madly typing throughout the previous scene. Cullum placed the papers on his desk, retrieved a bottle of beer and a Pilsner glass, set them up and, with deliberate casualness (not the easiest thing to pull off in the theater), poured out the libation, carefully monitoring the head. Pleased with the effect, he sat, picked up the manuscript, took a leisurely mouthful of nectar, began reading... and reacted with the most perfectly executed spit-take I'd ever seen.
Nothing, really, just a bit of business. But with what panache! It may not have qualified as genius, but there was something about that moment — some strange alchemy of actor, situation, palpable truth, and sheer, dime on the barrel comic timing — that has stayed with me for a quarter century.
There is, I'm sorry to report, nothing remotely as memorable in University Theatre at N.C. State's current TheatreFest production of this little mystery at Thompson Theatre. Worse, Ira Levin's script is not the thing it was, or at least that I took it to be.
Levin has written some powerful work over the years — his terrifyingly bleak melodrama Veronica's Room springs to mind, and there's surely nothing to be ashamed of about Rosemary's Baby (though Roman Polanski improved upon it in his film.) But Deathtrap now reveals itself as little more than a determinedly clever exercise whose well-made style is replete with flaws of execution.
The play's first scene, for example, brims over with the kinds of mistake a good playwright makes only at the start of his career. Husband and wife tell each other things they already know purely for the audience's appreciation, exposition is teased out interminably, and there is a one-sided telephone conversation that goes on at such length it becomes the theatrical equivalent of watching water boil, only less exciting. Cottoning to the fact that her husband of a dozen years is contemplating murder and plagiarism (for a writer the ranker offense), Myra Bruhl asks, "Would you? Could you?" What is she — his wife, or a weekend fling?
Aside from Levin's innate cleverness at plotting (and an occasional witty epigram, such as "Nothing recedes like success") the only really compelling aspect of Deathtrap — or, as it now seems to me, Claptrap — lies in its rather cunning self-reflexiveness. One of the "impromptu" dramatic ideas spun out by Sidney to Myra is, in fact, the plot of this play. His obsessive quest for the all-important "one set, five character money-maker" complete with T-shirt sales, is the same one Levin so successfully achieved with this title. And later, notions are aired for a new play that turn out to be the very action of Deathtrap itself. Levin speckles his script with clues for an attentive audience of where he's going, and the device is at once marvelously Pirandellian and, ultimately, facile. There was, I think, a dazzling play to be written around this intellectual conceit but Levin, like Bruhl, went for the money.
There was only so much director Fred Gorelick could do with this material and his cast — the weakest of this year's TheatreFest ensembles — doesn't help matters much. Although each actor has at least one good moment, the overall effect is funereal when what's needed is flash and filigree.
Farrell Reynolds is an unconvincing Sidney on any number of levels. He exhibits neither the sagging weariness of the professional failure nor the crackle of energy that courses through the character when his fortunes are reversed, and he eschews any sense of bereavement, however false it may be, in a crucial scene with his attorney. He does rise to the occasion during an especially funny rhetorical explosion in the second act, but there is no convincing thought, or tension, preceding his late acceptance (again, feigned) of an outrageous plot.
The Myra of Diane Gilboa is similarly surficial, but not without merit. She provides an amusingly self-conscious cough when required, and her hysterical grief during a climactic moment of Act One is genuine. But must she climb over an armchair, backside to the audience, like Jackie Kennedy scrambling over the hood of the car in Dallas?
I'll never forget the manner in which William Le Massena played the attorney Porter Milgram on Broadway. It's a nothing role, but Le Massena did not so much act as inhabit it. I remember flipping through my Playbill to see whether he was in fact a performer at all rather than one of those gifted amateurs Woody Allen casts so well in small parts — the type who seem to have wandered in from a documentary next door.
David Byron Hudson, alas, performs the role here as a nervous Midwestern hack, Barney Fife playing at Perry Mason, with a vocal component courtesy of Bullwinkle J. Moose. Sandi Sullivan, as the buttinsky psychic Helga Ten Dorp, fares rather better. The role is little more than an extended send-up, the stereotyped comic Swede recast as a troublingly accurate Dutch meddler, but Sullivan plays it to the hilt, non sequitur piling atop non sequitur.
Best of all is the Clifford of Gregor McElvogue, despite his having to sport one of the ugliest and least convincing wigs imaginable. He plays the faux naïf with utter guilelessness, allowing the character's innate duplicity and veiled danger to surface only gradually, like water percolating up through rock. Faced with what may be his final appeal, he turns seductive and moon-eyed, with the studied petulance of a little boy worming his way out of a spanking. McElvogue has a way of unselfconsciously batting his eyes that would charm a snake-oil salesman out of his ill-gotten gains, and he alone seems to be playing up the (rather ugly, in retrospect) gay angle of the play, albeit with indications so subtle you may miss them — which in this context is exactly correct.
Corky Pratt's ingenious unit set design for this year's TheatreFest repertory is amusingly tricked-out with sly accoutrements, like the array of medieval weaponry on the wall, the Franklin stove in one corner, and a skeleton with a rubber lobster for a heart and, later, a hat draped over one of the skull's eye sockets with Fosse-esque nonchalance. Jeff Besselman's lighting plan is effective, especially in a climactic thunderstorm of delicious hokiness. And Ida Bostian's costumes are a riot of late 1970s effluvia, complete with (for Clifford) studded leather belt and a nightmare polyester shirt of gray and white zigzag pattern.
Fred Gorelick has directed with less ingenuity than he can summon at his considerable best, and it's often in the small details that this Deathtrap flounders. Clifford does not, for example, enter wearing boots, despite Levin's scripted directions and Helga's unnerving vision. Only later in the play do the boots appear. And while Gorelick has wisely situated the action in 1978, he has also substituted new references for old ones, resulting in such anachronisms as the citing of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman. There is one nifty touch, when the house lights are raised near the end as compliment to a nascent playwright's vision. But the action at the climax is drawn out unconvincingly, partly necessitated by the curiously ill-considered placement of the crucial partner's desks on the playing area.
To my sorrow, encountering Deathtrap again was rather like meeting up with an old crush after 25 years and, faced with reality, wondering what it was you saw that so entranced you in the first place.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents TheatreFest 2003-Deathtrap (8 p.m. June 26-28 and 3 p.m. June 29)-at NCSU's Thompson Theatre, Raleigh, North Carolina. $13 single ticket ($11 students and seniors and NCSU faculty/staff/alumni association member, and $6 NCSU students). 919/515-1100. http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/University_Players/theatrefest2003.htm [inactive 9/03]. To download TheatreFest 2003 brochure in PDF format: http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/University_Players/files/TFest%20Brochure2003.pdf [inactive 9/03].