by Ira Levin
directed by Kaile Shilling
at the Loeb Experimental Theater
through November 6
Watching Deathtrap at the Loeb Experimental Theater is like walking through a House of Mirrors at a local country fair. Both are chock full of unexpected twists, false realities and good cheap thrills. Written by Ira Levin (author Rosemary's Baby, Sliver), this play about a play about a play mercilessly examines the question of whether it is life that imitates art or vice-versa.
Though the production starts off at a confused, hurried pace, the audience soon becomes intrigued by the world of Sydney Bruhl (Brad Rouse), a soon-to-be has-been playwright who, we are led to believe, would kill for the chance to resuscitate his fading career. When former student Clifford Anderson (Ross Benjamin) sends him a copy of his just finished, extremely promising play entitled Deathtrap, Bruhl invites the awe-inspired youth to bring all the existing drafts to his home for some one-on-one mentoring. Hardly altruistic, Bruhl is creating a deathtrap of his own. As soon as the boy arrives it is clear to the audience, and Sydney's wife Myra, that the desperate writer is up to no good. The boy is murdered. The play becomes Sydney's. And the Bruhls can live happy, albeit guilt-ridden, lives as a result of Deathtrap's success. That is until...
To further detail the plot's laundry list of contrivances and deceptive turns would be pointless, if not impossible. They come fast and furious, and, like the highs and lows of a roller coaster, they are exhiliratingly enjoyable despite their random nature. The play's development is always one step ahead of the audience, and the race to keep up does get tiresome towards the latter half of the second act. Fortunately however, Levin, keen to an audience's limited capacity to watch and process a bullet-paced thriller, allows for extensive monologues in which characters, like members of a Greek chorus, meticulously recall events twist for twist.
Although the play is primarily concerned with delivering excitement to its audience, it is quite satisfying on a cerebral level as well. Similar to Robert Altman's film "The Player," Deathtrap pushes the boundaries of ambition and expediency. How far can one go to achieve fame? Can you climb the ladder of success by pushing others to their death? Is one's drive to achieve one's goal stronger than one's love?
Making subtle references to such theater big-wigs as Antonin Artaud and David Merrick throughout, Levin, like Altman, adds a certain element of inside humor to his work. Picking up on and, more importantly, understanding Levin's allusions allows audience members a most gratifying sense of satisfaction. This "I know something you don't know" component somehow compensates for the feeling that Levin otherwise seems to be out to trick you.
Perhaps to increase the element of surprise in the play, director Kaile Shilling allows the actors to speed through dialogue. Unfortunately, this sense of urgency sometimes results in muddled delivery, confusing the audience even further. The production is in best form when the actors are allowed to employ body language and action sequences to move the plot, creating tension between the characters that is thick and explosive.
With his hysterically funny phony affectations and glib delivery, Rouse's Bruhl is a wonderful mix of smug cynicism and crafty nonchalance. Adding a tinge of frustration and self-pity to his portrayal, Rouse gives the audience something to which they can relate, allowing us to feel for and sometimes even root for a man capable of murder and deceit. Dressed like an Olympic coach from the former Soviet Union, Alexis Susman as the Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp, delivers the play's most amusing lines with appropriate timing and sense of mock seriousness. Benjamin's slick, swaggering and sleazy charm make him a convincing pretty-boy writer and conspirator.
Instead of just portraying Myra as a wife who is legitimately afraid of her husband's potential for evil, Catherine Robe plays Mrs. Bruhl with the wacky enthusiasm of Jerry Lewis. Robe incessantly grabs at her pearls, fiddles with her knitting needles and organizes and reorganizes liquor decanters as if these were the international signs for being nervous. Her lack of subtlety impairs her delivery as she swallows most of her lines, confusing the scenes that she is in. When Mrs. Bruhl does meet her "plot twist", the audience is more relieved than shocked.
Enter Sydney Bruhl's Westport, Connecticut living room and make sure your safety bar is pulled all the way down; Deathtrap is a wild ride that will leave you thrilled and exhausted.