The thrills and meta-plot of 'Deathtrap' at Everyman have not aged well

City Paper

O “Deathtrap,” where is thy sting?

Whether you saw the 1978 stage version or the 1982 movie version, Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” likely impressed you by delivering a shocking surprise every 20 minutes. During the show’s current revival at Everyman Theatre, however, those plot twists are less likely to get responses of “Oh, my god, I can’t believe it!” than of “Oh, that’s a good one; that was clever.” 

This is surely true if you’ve seen the earlier versions—even if, like me a month ago, you barely remember what happened. But if you’ve never seen any version of “Deathtrap,” you’re still likely to be less scared than the audiences of 30-plus years ago. The culture has overtaken the show. After you’ve seen “Blood Simple” and “Fargo,” where the Coen Brothers play the thriller game even better than Levin and for much higher emotional stakes, how can you be jolted by “Deathtrap”? 

“Deathtrap” also impressed contemporary audiences with its meta-plotting and meta-dialogue. Here was a murder-mystery writer (Levin) writing about a murder-mystery writer (the fictional Sidney Bruhl) who was plotting to murder another murder-mystery writer (the fictional Clifford Anderson) but only as a ruse to camouflage another murder. Sidney is then tempted to write up the whole thing as a murder-mystery play called “Deathtrap.” But today, when this kind of self-referential wit is done even better by “The Simpsons,” that too seems less impressive.

Given those realities, director Vincent Lancisi has made the wise decision to just have fun with the show. On opening night, Lancisi came out before the first curtain to chat up some fundraising and to relate that rehearsals had been like a family reunion, for all five cast members are from Everyman’s resident acting company—45 percent of the whole troupe. And the actors did look like they were having a grand time—as if they were at a holiday gathering, playing a cutthroat game of quarter-ante poker after dinner. 

Set designer Timothy Mackabee was certainly having fun when he designed Sidney’s Connecticut home office where the entire play takes place. With a floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace, giant sliding stable doors, the theater window cards for his Broadway hits, and an immense collection of antique weapons, this is the suburban lair of a once-hungry writer gone soft, now without a worthwhile idea in his head.

So Sidney (Bruce Randolph Nelson) is dismayed and jealous when one of his playwriting students, Clifford (Danny Gavigan), mails the teacher an ingenious script that has the unmistakable smell of a hit. What if this were the only copy, Sidney muses to his wife Myra (Beth Hylton), and he were to murder Clifford and claim the script as his own? Myra laughs but soon stops when she suspects that Sidney may be serious—especially after her husband calls young Clifford on the phone and invites him to drive down to Westport so they can talk about the play. Oh, yes, and please bring the only other copy.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but there are two other characters: the celebrity psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Deborah Hazlett) and lawyer Porter Milgrim (Wil Love). Hazlett, barely recognizable in a black wig and thick Teutonic accent, hams it up deliciously as Sidney’s neighbor who is annoying clairvoyant about the trouble brewing. 

The scares aren’t that scary, and you can hear Levin’s plot machinery clicking away in the background. But there are a few moments when the relationship between Sidney and Clifford, the old lion in decline and the young cub on the prowl, flares into genuine human feeling. As the balding, schlumpy Sidney, Nelson gives every compliment for his student a jealous undercurrent of sarcasm. But he also lets us see the admiration behind the envy.

As the handsome, wavy-haired Clifford, Gavigan embodies every young writer who ever lived. Every five minutes he switches from believing that his latest work is a masterpiece to believing that it’s utter garbage. As a result, he bounces between humble gratitude for Sidney’s left-handed compliments and wary suspicion of the teacher’s intentions. Before long, we in the audience care more about Clifford’s struggle for independence from his father figure than we do about who might die next. 

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