Deathtrap, by Ira Levin. Directed by Aaron Mark. Reviewed by
J. Peter Bergman.
"... a gifted director couldn't hurt it!"
What we have on stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Festival theater in Stockbridge is a comic look at a playwright's fumbled career as a writer of mysteries and thrillers. What he has in his hands is a play that could change all that, so good he says, that even a gifted director couldn't hurt it, couldn't destroy its qualities or ruin its potential. So what do we get? A play so good that it has reached a point of personal self-destruction.
Not that this production of "Deathtrap" by Ira Levin isn't a good one. It is a very good one indeed. It's just that the play has lost some of its punch, much of its odd dignity as a piece. When it was first presented on Broadway in 1978 with John Wood and Victor Garber, Marian Seldes and Elizabeth Parrish it startled audiences with its frankness and its openness about relationships that hardly function at all. Sidney and Myra Bruhl have a marriage that is falling apart, as much over money issues as over their own personal capabilities. Sidney and young playwright Clifford Anderson have a collaboration that functions on more than merely obvious levels. As written by author Ira Levin, those levels sink deep, far deeper than are immediately realized. A massive hit in its time the play was also made into a startling movie starring Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, Christopher Reeve and Irene Worth. The film made history when Caine and Reeve exchanged a less-than-chaste kiss at the point where the play's first act is hitting its high points. Most stage productions since have used the kiss to complete the picture of these two men and their relationship. Though it doesn't appear in the script, the inferences were there with Wood and Garber.
Recently the Levin estate managed by his three sons has denied productions the right to use the kiss, claiming that it made the play homosexual which was not their father's intent. There is no kiss in the Stockbridge presentation and I have to say that the director, Aaron Mark, has not given us much else to go on concerning the real and difficult connections the two characters make that allows the plot to take its twisted turns. I say, "Damn the estate and its limitations!" It has been 37 years since the play made its impact; give it back what has now been denied and let the play go on for another 37 years without this sort of fold back of time and appreciation. The author gives his men their comeuppance, just as writers were supposed to do back then. But in the meantime let them live.
Gregg Edelman is a near-perfect Sidney Bruhl. His mind, as it works hard to find success where none is apparent, plays out across his face. There is something quite wonderful in hearing a calm voice exclaiming words of a positive nature while watching the face of the same actor tell a different story. Edelman does this over and over and he is a joy to watch and listen to as he brings Bruhl, the playwright, to phenomenal depths and extraordinary heights.
As his wife Myra, actress Alison Fraser goes a bit overboard with the Connecticut socialite accent rendering some of her lines totally incomprehensible. She plays the odd-ball characteristics of Myra wonderfully but hardly gives us a chance to like her even when those Kate Hepburn comic moments occur which should endear her a bit. Her final scene in act one shows how good an actress she is and can be in a good role. She struggles mightily here and wins each battle to a lower level of physical tolerance until Myra's war with life meets its ultimate solution.
Eric Hill has taken on the role of Porter Milgrim, a lawyer with a larcenous bent who gets the last laugh, literally, as he ascends the stairs to a better place.
Tom Pecinka shines as Clifford, the young man whose ideals are tested through his new professional relationship with a great man of the theater. He seems to have a fine grip on the man he plays and as Clifford plays one variation after another on his own personality, the actor behind it all gets to visually and verbally play off of everyone he meets. It is fun to watch him in this role. He may not have the more comic lines but without his Clifford to play off no one else would have them either.
Always a delicious treat, Debra Jo Rupp plays the eastern European psychic Helga Ten Dorp. She is Dutch and Rumanian and always in the middle of a "feeling," a sense that something is, has, or will be happening shortly. Rupp's version of Helga is that of a wood-sprite or demon and her appearances at the Bruhl home always have an effect that lasts long after she has departed. She delivers an expectancy of more dark lightness to come. Her arm gesture when she introduces herself to someone new is both consistent and a consistent surprise. She lends the play its comedy tribute to the history of thrillers and her final scene in Act Two is a coda played and sung with a joie de vivre that the play desperately needs.
A semi-favorite play in need of a more focused approach, the set designed by Randall Parsons with its open roof and unattached beams works well though it seems too appropriate to a play denied its extended passions. Wade Laboissonierre's costumes fulfill need but never approach the individual tastes of the characters wearing them. Alan Edwards' lighting is superbly theatrical. Sound by J. Hagenbuckle is perfect. The fight sequences are among the best Tony Simotes has done, constantly surprising the viewer which is as it should be.
Aaron Mark has staged the play well and given his actors the help they needed to get into their roles. Before he departs he might spend another few minutes refining the sound of the play so that Fraser's lines aren't garbled, Edelman's references to anything gay aren't swallowed and Rupp's explosions are even louder than they already are. Even without a kiss to express the characters' realities to the audience, this play could come closer to Levin's intentions in his play about theater and its impact.
Gregg Edelman and Alison Fraser; photo: Michelle McGrady
Gregg Edelman and Tom Pecinka; photo: Michelle McGrady
Debra Jo Rupp; photo: Michelle McGrady
Deathtrap plays through July 25 on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival Theater located at 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA (parking entrance on Route 7). For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.