Death Warmed Over
We enjoy a classic whodunit in the same way we enjoy Christmas carolers: with a certain amused detachment. We are not seeking new insight into the human condition but instead are indulging in a bit of nostalgic escapism. Thus, if the revival of a genre piece like Ira Levin's classic thriller Deathtrap is to be a success, it must either create a stellar replica close enough to its prototype to engage the audience immediately, or it must transform the original into something entirely new and innovative.
The Lake Worth Playhouse has opted for the straight-ahead strategy, but the troupe unfortunately fails to elevate this play above its own superficial and commercial façade. The result is a mediocre and at times quite boring production, a problem for any play but fatal for a thriller. Despite the play's well-crafted dialogue and devious twists and turns, the real trap for the audience is the acute sense of time passing (a.k.a. boredom) brought on by lackluster acting and uninspired direction. Any restaging of Deathtrap, which ran on Broadway for 1793 performances during the late Seventies and early Eighties, is unlikely to emerge as a critically acclaimed masterpiece, but it should at least be entertaining.
This production is even more disappointing given that the company has previously demonstrated a capacity for putting on quality theater. The summer one-act festival Brief Encounters, held in the stripped-down black-box setting of the company's Stonzek Studio Theatre, was a showcase of resourceful, energetic, and talented actors and directors. Now, a couple of doors down at the main stage, we find a set ten times as elaborate for a production not half as interesting. The choice to revive a somewhat hoary Broadway hit is puzzling at first -- until one scans the theater, which is full of retirees. This might be a case of have snowbirds, will pander.
When the show's protagonist, playwright Sidney Bruhl (John Stevens), declares, Nothing recedes like success, he is referring to his own failing career as a playwright. He could just as well be describing the play itself, which starts out with a bit of energy before receding into a muddle of monotonous plot-summary-laden monologues. Without giving too much away for the four or five people out there who haven't seen some version of the play (or the 1982 movie starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon), the basic story goes like this: Bruhl once had a Broadway hit but has since been afflicted with writer's block and several flops. He receives a highly promising manuscript titled Deathtrap from a young aspiring writer, Clifford Anderson (Robert Keniston), and devises a plan to knock off the kid, steal his script, and reap the benefits of one last Broadway hit. He is a murder mastermind after all. Why not put his armory of antique guns, crossbows, daggers, and axes to good use? But alas, murder made easy would require too much character development, so the plot races and reverses, with foils and foibles, as murder-mystery plots are wont to do.
Classic mysteries such as Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, Frederick Knott's Dial M for Murder, and Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution are not known for their complex characters and subtle drama and thus create two big challenges for actors. First, the players must make their characters seem believable in the often unbelievable circumstances of such works. Second, they must pace themselves, modulating their levels of energy to create the rise-and-fall tension that drives all thrillers. Unfortunately the three main actors in this production of Deathtrap fail on both counts. In nearly every scene, the actors merely deliver lines. At times we even have the sensation of being courtside at Wimbledon, watching a line being served and arcing above the actors in all its glory before falling to the other side of the net, a feeling both agonizing and infinitely uninteresting.
Sidney's wife, Myra (Karen Whaley), looks the part of the anguished suburban housewife in her pressed slacks and crisp shirt, blowing kisses to the neighbors with one hand and gripping the brandy decanter with the other. Whaley acts like one of the title automatons in The Stepford Wives (another Levin work) who has short-circuited. She acts aghast and hysterical for most of her time onstage, which seems longer than it actually is. Evincing no change of emotion, her persona is one straight line of hysteria from beginning to end.
Stevens delivers his lines capably enough and portrays the sardonic, cool, and calculating side of Sidney, but like Whaley he reveals none of the complexities that exist in his character. Because he is the central figure of the play and the one who possesses the most numerous multiple identities, this is a real problem. One longs to see Michael Caine up there: charming, erudite, and sublimely evil. Stevens's physical relationship to his lines just doesn't manifest those qualities. In fact even when the stage notes call for physicality, he comes off as removed and stiff. Likewise there is a glimmer of hope for developing Clifford's character after his true agenda is revealed, but as villain or virtuoso, Keniston plays him with an off-putting superficiality.
This lack of depth and charisma permeates the show, turning the characters into a collection of cardboard cutouts. Love-hate relationships succumb to a cashier-bag boy style of interaction. The emotions pass through the conveyor belt and over the scanner from one actor to another; rage, passion, vengeance, and remorse are packed neatly and carted away. The romantic relationships are especially unconvincing, because they lack real passion. If we are to assume that people are being killed so that others can unite, we expect more than a few gratuitous hugs and kisses.
Doris Biles as Helga ten Dorp, the nosy psychic neighbor, is a breath of fresh air in this respect. Biles is an emotive actress, moving around with her feelers out. As she asks, Why do you keep such pain-covered things? she actually interacts with Sidney and Myra (and the set, for that matter), giving the stage a much-needed intimacy.
Perhaps you can't judge a Beckett play by measuring the audience's audible reaction, but the shouts and shrieks at a show like Deathtrap should be some indication of its success. In this production punch lines are delivered ... and no one laughs. Gunshots are fired ... and no one screams. Ulterior motives are divulged ... and no one gasps. At intermission the volunteer ushers, tanned retirees in smart red polo shirts, gather to debrief. Why did so-and-so kill what's-his-name? He's what? Oh, okay, I see, but I still don't trust that other one. Hearing them speculate feels more real and interesting than the play itself -- a bad sign when you have 40 minutes and several tedious homicides to go.
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