By Ira Levin
Directed by William Osetek
Produced by Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace
Many Twists Create a Meta-Thriller
Thrillers are a tough genre to make work in live theatre, but when they’re as well-written as Ira Levin’s 1978 Deathtrap, and as well-staged as William Osetek’s current production at Drury Lane, they can be as hair-raising and suspenseful as the best movies. Unfortunately, the nature of a story which is highly reliant on plot twists makes it very difficult to describe in a way which will leave potential audience members with the ideal first-time exposure to it. Though Deathtrap has been seen from time to time in the Chicago area (there was a production at Lake Forest’s Citadel Theatre in 2014) and was adapted into a movie in 1982, there are a lot of people who are new to it, if the opening night audience’s gasps are any indication. Therefore, most people who see the Drury Lane production can be assured of an exciting night of highly enjoyable entertainment.
The play takes place within what we are informed is a converted colonial stable, although Jeff Kmiec’s set design really puts the “west” in Westport. This is the study of Sidney Bruhl (Daniel Cantor), the author of a thriller which was highly popular and profitable on Broadway eighteen years ago, despite everyone saying it was very similar to Peter Shaffer’s Sleuth. However, Sidney hasn’t had a good play since, and is living off the money provided by his wife, Myra (McKinley Carter). In a room filled with weapons of every description, some props, some real, Sidney broods and unsuccessfully battles writer’s block until, one day, he receives a manuscript from one of his seminar students. The play, entitled “Deathtrap” is exactly the guaranteed-success Sidney has been failing to produce, and the student, seemingly unaware of his teacher’s failures, sent it to him asking for advice on revisions. Myra suggests that Sidney offer to collaborate and share royalties, but Sidney’s first instinct was something far darker.
Murder would be impractical for a number of reasons, but once the young playwright, Cliff Anderson (Aaron Latterell), arrives at the house with what he admits to be his only other copy of “Deathtrap,” it starts to become more appealing. Myra can hardly believe what she is seeing, not only because Sidney’s plan is horrific, but because there’s an additional risk factor. The famous Dutch psychic Helga ten Dorp (Cindy Gold) has taken up residence in a nearby cottage, and she’s famous for solving murders. Myra suggests that Sidney write his play about her, perhaps by working her into a play all about a murderous playwright. Of course, there’s actually much more going on than there initially seems, and by the end of the first act, the first corpse has been made, but the scheming has only just begun.
There are five actors, the fifth being Marty Lodge in the role of Sidney’s lawyer, Porter Milgrim, and all know very well what they are doing. Gold is hilarious as the psychic who pushes out visions like she’s giving birth or severely constipated. Cantor’s Sidney is a wise-cracking cynic who delivers much of the play’s intellectual humor, as well as its sense of danger. Latterell’s Clifford is eminently charming and his relationship with Sidney becomes more interesting with each new development, while Carter’s Myra is a sensible contrast to her husband. To describe how the actors portray their characters would, again, give too much away, but the suspense only works because the audience remains interested to see what will happen to them, and what their true goals are. Matt Hawkins has provided them with fight choreography which adds a further layer of excitement, but much of the tension comes from wondering when, exactly, a fight is going to break out, and who will have the upper-hand.
Deathtrap is not only a thriller, it is also a meta-play which comments on and pays tribute to the dinner theatre murder mysteries of the time in which it was written. Though those plays, too, are revived from time to time, the genre no longer dominates the stage as it once did, except perhaps on the community theatre level. Rather than making Deathtrap outdated, this only makes watching it similar to watching a classic movie from the 70s, but with live action, better audio, and an enhanced feeling of claustrophobia, since our view of the set never changes. The play’s use of its own key plot device as its title is the sort of thing which could be confusing, were it not for Osetek’s clear direction—every story beat is believable in the moment, despite often being unexpected (and in one late reversal, implausible). The story would have been different if Cantor’s Sidney was more overtly nasty instead of funny, but presenting him that way is a valid choice for the kind of entertainment Osetek is going for. People new to Deathtrap should definitely discover its twists for themselves, and those returning to it can be assured of an engrossing production.
Reviewed June 16, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Deathtrap’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. Tickets are $45-60, with discounts for students and seniors and dinner packages available. To order, call 630-530-0111 or visit DruryLaneTheatre.com. Performances are Wednesdays at 1:30 pm, Thursdays at 1:30 pm and 8:00 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 5:00 pm and 8:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm through August 14. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.