Deathtrap by Ira Levin. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jonathan Walker and Quincy Dunn-Baker; photo: provided
"Nothing recedes like success."
Is there a more successful stage thriller than Ira Levin’s "Deathtrap?" To be honest, no, there is not. Have I seen it a lot? Yes, I have. Is that okay with me. Basically, yes, it is. Like the leading character in this play, Sidney Bruhl, I can answer my own questions. And like a few other characters in the play I resent that I can do that.
Still, this is the most successful thriller produced in the latter half of the 20th century and some respect must be paid, even though Levin wrote the title line and it is true, even after all this time, that the success of this show breeds a kind of wariness of it by audiences and directors and producers. It is an expensive show to produce, just in terms of the props. It is a show that so many people have seen so many times that there are few surprises left. It takes a highly inventive directorial mind to find a new approach to this piece.
At the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont there is a production directed by a very clever director, but she has not solved the problem of over-familiarity with this production. Giovanna Sardelli has arranged some intriguing stage pictures but that isn’t enough to save this show from blandness. It just doesn’t thrill, though it does delight.
Antoinette LaVecchia plays the Dutch psychic and comic relief of the show, Helga Ten Dorp, with wild abandon and with a vaudevillian’s broad strokes and she saves the show from becoming a bland comedy with a few laugh-lines. Her accent is thicker than some others. Her dress code is a gypsy-style hippie abandonment. She makes each of her three scenes into tiny comic masterpieces of physical self-abuse and verbal fortitude. She saves what could be an ordinary evening and makes it into something delectable and worthwhile.
Myra Bruhl is played with a nervous, fidgety, self-flagellating defensiveness by Amelia White. As the character is glum, so the actress expresses her. When the plot to kill her reaches its inevitable conclusion there is no loss but only a door opening for revelations of all sorts, all provided by the script.
Kirk Jackson adds a touch of human realism to the role of the attorney Porter Milgram. His final scene with LaVecchia becomes a true highlight of the show as he lets the lawyerly greed show through.
Quincy Dunn-Baker betrays the playwright’s intentions for Clifford Anderson by being uninteresting. Clifford must be interesting, must be somewhat compelling to be worth all of the odd efforts of Sidney to manipulate him into the difficult relationship he enters. Dunn-Baker turns in a performance that is fifty percent resolute and fifty percent oblivious. He never comes across as a threat and he never comes across as a love object. He exists, in this show, merely to serve as a foil for Sidney. And by foil I mean a rapier, a thin, dueling sword that may inflict harm, but might only leave a minor mark. Dunn-Baker gives a performance of such restraint that his feigned return from the dead only has the slightest impact on the audience.
However, it is the Sidney Bruhl of actor Jonathan Walker that serves as a key to the performances of those actors who most come into contact with him. We have to want to like Sidney at the start of the play. He is needy. He hasn’t had a success in years and money is running thin. His relationship with his sick wife is running even thinner. We know he needs to act, right from the start, but we cannot imagine the path that need will open to him. We need to be on his side from beginning to end for this play to work and Walker doesn’t present that sort of man here.
From the beginning his Sidney is a scheming, low bastard who cannot treat people well. His overuse of miming internal dialogue, or dreary monologue becomes tiresome and he ruins it for other actors who use this technique. Without the much needed dichotomy of spirit we have nowhere to go in pursuit of this man and his schemes.
The second half of this production works much better than the first. Whether the director finds it more approachable, or whether it is the company on stage making better sense of the script, I cannot say. But it was an improvement over the first act.
Debra Booth has designed an almost perfect set, but without that sense of pride for Sidney that he needs to feel about this house. This play is all about the house and in spite of a fine stage picture, true to the script, there still wasn’t that connection.
Barbara A. Bell has given us costumes that are right for their period but not really all that right for the characters. She just misses either in color or in cut the real visuals that each person needs. Except for Helga. There she did a fine job.
Michael Gianitti’s lighting was excellent, just right for this play with each scene well defined for day and night, for weather and for dramatic intent. A fine job here for this show.
Jill BG DuBoff provides the best possible sound cues for this thriller, including filmic underscore at time which is usually intrusive but served as a welcome relief in this production.
After a season of fine, fine shows, Dorset ends with a slight whimper, but one with many redeeming features. "Deathtrap" is a thriller that can amuse and entertain while chilling you to the bone, but in this case it merely amuses without much chill. It must be said that this time the thrill is gone.
Deathtrap plays through September 1 at the Dorset Playhouse on Cheney Road in Dorset, VT. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.