Deathtrap Review

Posted: September 22, 2009 in writing
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Deathtrap at the Art Center Theatre, Citrus Hills, FL
3.5 of 5 stars

By Kevin Rookwood

I felt compelled to write a review of the following play for several reasons: first, Citrus County lacks any real critics in regards to community theater (aside from Ms. Ruth Levins who reviews), and secondly, constructive criticism goes a long way in regards to box office revenue.  Without a standard by which to measure these shows, the production quality and value has no basis from which to start, and what you get is a mixed up mess on the stage. I felt it necessary to pen this in order to point out what I considered as flaws, but also to exalt some of the things that needed to be mentioned. These are merely my opinions, and in no way should they be taken to heart. I’m only one man, and what really mattered was the overall audience reaction to the production, which in this case seemed favorable.  With that said, on to the review.

I recently attended a production of Deathtrap, written by Ira Levin, at the Art Center Theatre in Citrus Hills.  Ira Levin, as you may recall, is the author of such diabolical gems as Rosemary’s Baby (classic), Sliver and this play, which is a continuance of his love of Thriller/Suspense with a hint of comedy that Mr. Levin does so well. In fact, Deathtrap holds the record for longest running thriller/comedy on Broadway, and it earned Mr. Levin his second Edgar Award.

Before the show began, the Director, Mr. Peter Abrams, came out to give announcements and a speech. This was the first Saturday performance of Deathtrap at the Art Center Theater.  Mr. Abrams explained a bit about Deathtrap and set the stage for the production.  My first thought regarding this unnecessary speech was, “What’s wrong with this play that it needs to be explained?”  I’ve often heard that a good play needs no explanation. Ira Levin was a master crafter in the genre of thriller/comedy, his works speak for themselves.  As the curtain rose on the first scene, one of the play’s two main characters took the stage, Syndey Bruhl.  What followed was a complete surprise to me: Ira Levin’s diabolically clever work about the darkness of the human soul was imagined as a farcical comedy, not the thriller/comedy it is known for.

There were so many laughs.  I’ve seen previous productions of this work, I never remembered it as being that funny.  Mr. Levin was not a farcical comedy writer.  These weren’t well placed laughs, these were cheap laughs, made at the expense of the dialogue that included a great deal of slap-stick style comedy and mugging from the actors.  The first time I saw this play, I witnessed a cat-and-mouse game between the two male leads – Sydney and Clifford plot to kill Myra, Sydney’s wife.  They conspire to fake a murder, and give her a heart attack.  She dies, and the two move in together.  In the second act the tension builds between the two male leads, and leads to a dramatic, climactic ending where they are both dead.  What I saw this night was true comedy.  It reminded me of vaudeville.

The character of Myra, played by Pam Schreck, is in fact quite a dynamic character.  She is the long-suffering wife of a playwright who has gone to seed, as well as his benefactor when it comes to finance.  The first jump (and probably only genuinely ‘scary’ moment) came when Myra screamed suddenly, a loud piercing sound that rang through the auditorium and gave us all a start.  Cheap tricks, sir, cheap tricks indeed.  Real tension and terror doesn’t require gags like that.

Rounding out the cast was the delightful Fran Barg as Helga Ten Dorp, the famous psychic who lives next door to the Bruhls, and Edwin Martin as Parker, the attorney to the Bruhls.  Both gave fantastic performances.  My only complaint regarding either of these characters specifically involves Helga Ten Dorp, who provides comic relief from the suspense and fright.  With all the comedy in the previous and latter scenes, her comic relief became superfluous.  As a feature character, she should be the foremost comic relief in the entire play.  Edwin Martin was excellent in his role, as always.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with several of the aforementioned people, and it is always wonderful to see them on stage.

I must mention a specific scene in which I have to question the Director’s motives.  In Act II, there is a scene between Sydney (played by Howard Christ III), Clifford (John Govonni) and Parker (Edwin Martin).  Parker sees Clifford lock the play he is working on in his half of the desk and mentions it to Sydney.  After both leave, Sydney decides in desperation to find out what exactly Clifford has been working on, and tries to open the drawer.  What the Director chose to do in this scene was reminiscent of Benny Hill.  With mad-cap music playing in the background, Sydney scrambles about the stage like a lunatic (quite comically) in an attempt to open the desk drawer.  It was overdone.  Too much implicated hilarity in a scene where it should be obvious that the character is desperate to find out what his ‘partner’ is working on without the shtick of vaudeville.

Another area I feel compelled to mention is the two lead actor’s relationship with each other.  These characters are supposed to be lovers, but what I saw in them was fear.  They seemed afraid to touch each other, and even seemed to be embarrassed at having to do so.  At one point, Sydney says to Clifford, “But I love you” and unfortunately it was wholly unbelievable to me.  Their entire relationship seemed forced, and it didn’t make for good chemistry.

While one might think I’m nitpicking in regards to these small things, I assure you that I am not.  Having been an actor and a director in the past, I find myself scrutinizing things that directors are supposed to consider.  The choice of music before, and during intermission, did not seem an appropriate choice.  Whatever music you play works directly to set the mood of the audience before the show begins, and I did not feel Ode To Joy was appropriate at all. In fact, there were several upbeat, lively musical pieces that were played, and it gave the whole thing a smack of farce.  At one point in the evening I could have sworn Ira Levin rolled in his grave.

Was this a terrible play? Not at all. The audience seemed to enjoy the ‘hilarity’ caused by the actors.  I did not enjoy it, since I was not expecting so much comedy at all.   Theater is meant to entertain, in which this play certainly did I imagine, but not for the reasons presented.  Comedy is comedy, and suspense is suspense and never shall the twain meet, unless it is deliberately written in the script (as in the case of Helga Ten Dorp or some of Sydney’s rather scathing lines).

Overall, my thoughts are that the comedy antics should be toned down to more realistic levels.  There are a few gems in the dialogue that need no external antics to make them funny.  The actors did very well in their roles, aside from the few things I mentioned regarding chemistry and director’s choices. I would like to see more of the relationship hinted at in the dialogue between Sydney and Clifford, or at least, the actors themselves to be more comfortable playing their roles during those scenes. The lack of true suspense or thriller was disappointing, but again, the audience seemed to enjoy the production. I would also like to mention that the set was beautifully crafted, and did indeed fit the time period in which the play takes place, and it deserves a round of applause for all the work that went into it.

I give this 3.5 stars out of 5, for farcical gags, cheap scare tactics and unstable chemistry.

Deathtrap can be seen at the Art Center Theatre in Citrus Hills, Florida.  The show’s run dates are September 18 – October 4, 2009.  Tickets are 18 dollars for reserve seating and 12 dollars for students. For more information please visit: http://www.artcenter.cc/ or contact the box office at (352)746-7606 Monday through Friday 1pm to 4pm.

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