Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Comical Approach to Ira Levin's Deathtrap
The Willows Theatre Company is presenting a community theatre favorite, Ira Levin's Deathtrap. I think every regional or semi-professional theatre has presented this mystery thriller. I first saw the show at the Magic Box Theatre during the winter of 1978 with John Wood, Victor Garber, Marian Seldes and Marian Winters playing Helga Tendorp. The critics were not kind to the suspenseful story, with the New York Daily News calling it "trash" and the New York Times saying the play "doesn't seem to know where to go." The Times went further when the mystery reached its 1000th performance by saying "Marian Seldes has died a thousand deaths."
Ira Levin's audiences did not seem to care what the critics said about the play since it became the longest running mystery thriller on the Broadway stage with an amazing 1809 performances. It is also the fifth longest running non-musical play in Broadway history. The major backer of the play was the notorious Dr. Claus von Bulow who was later accused of attempting to murder his wife. The fact that the wife died of a stoke was basically the same way the stage wife dies.
I have seen several productions over the years and the surprises are no longer there. The film version starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve was one of the first films in mainstream cinema where two men kissed. However, Director Richard Elliott has wisely made this into a comedy and the material is played for laughs. The homosexual part seems less obvious in this production. He also has given the juicy roles to two very good actors, Stephen Klum and Cassidy Brown, who have great chemistry together
Deathtrap is about washed-up playwright Sidney Bruhl (Stephen Klum), who receives a copy of a brilliant new work by his seminar student Clifford (Cassidy Brown) who needs advice on the script. Sidney reads the play and says "a gifted director couldn't even hurt it". Sidney invites the young man to his farm type home near Westport, Connecticut, to discuss the play. Bruhl jokes to his wife that he could easily kill the student and claim the play as his own. The Bruhls are financially strapped and it would be clear sailing for both of them with the box office returns of the play called Deathtrap. Myra Bruhl (Sandra Jardin) has a heart condition that is brought out very cleverly during the first act. Once Clifford enters the house, it is clear that things are not what they seem. Helga ten Dorp (Amy L. Washburn), a nosey psychic from next door, and Porter Milgrim (Jeff Bredt), Sidney's observant attorney, can only speculate where the line between truth and deception lies.
Deathtrap contains some very good dialogue about writers, directors, critics and other people associated with theatrical production. There are clever lines such as Sidney saying "Nothing recedes like success." Jealousy and greed materialize in the second act with many plot twists plus a lot of humor.
Richard Elliott has assembled a good cast. His direction is sharp and very clear in the telling of this story. Stephen Klum (Daddy Warbucks in Annie and many Shakespearian plays) is excellent with his wisecracking remarks. Cassidy Brown (Meyerhold in Death of Meyerhold and many Willows productions) holds his own against the more urbane Sidney. Sandra Jardin (The Knight of the Burning Pestle at Marin Shakespeare) gives a satisfying performance as Sidney's wife, though she does not seem very frail for a woman with heart disease.
Amy L. Washburn (Night of the Hunter and Annie) is a real hoot with her German accent, announcing her premonitions of the evil within the house. It's a great over-the-top performance. Jeff Bredt (founding member of Teatro La Quindicina), who bears a striking resemblance to ex-President Clinton, nicely rounds out the cast as the stuffy but observant lawyer Porter Milgrim.
Tom Bendon has designed a wonderful detailed set, all beams and bare redwood, of a house designed from a barn that is so prevalent in the Connecticut area. The room has daggers, swords, Broadway posters and assorted bric a brac to make it very livable. It is basically the same set as the New York production in the '70s.
Deathtrap played at the Willows Theatre in the Willows Shopping Center on Diamond St in Concord through October 23rd. Their Christmas presentation will be Olivier! which opens on November 7 and runs through December 31.