BWW Reviews: A Killer DEATHTRAP at York Little Theatre
Author and playwright Ira Levin most likely will be remembered primarily for his science-fiction-tinged thriller "The Stepford Wives". That's a shame, as one of his best pieces of work was DEATHTRAP. Originally produced on Broadway in 1978, it became an equally popular movie starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in 1982. Despite the movie, and the frequency of performance of this classic five-actor mystery-comedy, DEATHTRAP is surprisingly little-known by many people these days. At York Little Theatre under the direction of new YLT director Crystal Ganong, the play retains the humorous but deadly charm of the original production.
Ganong is new to YLT but not to directing, having directed both in college and in community theatre in Maine. Her sharp sense of humor is evident in the direction and timing of this production and in the setting up of the humorous set pieces that occur throughout the performance. Admittedly, it's been said that "even a gifted director can't hurt" DEATHTRAP, but good direction is in fact key to this show's vitality. Ganong noted to us that she was in the position of introducing not only the show but Ira Levin himself to the younger cast members, and that some had not even been familiar with "The Stepford Wives". Fortunately, this production should help reintroduce the show and Levin to area audiences.
Veteran performer Christopher Quigley, who is an old hand at the part of Clifford Anderson, is a very fine Sidney Bruhl, the downward-spiraling, hard-drinking playwright with a reputation better than his recent plays have been. Sidney's greatest achievement since his first couple of thrillers is his collection of antique and show-prop weapons, displayed in his study, that scream to the audience that something must be going to happen with at least one of them. Set designers Bob McCleary and Ray Olewiler must be praised for their "wall of weaponry", a great job that commanded the audience's attention as much as the characters did. As the show is in YLT's black-box Studio Theatre, the weapons, like the actors, were almost close enough to touch, and only close examination disclosed their prop status.
While some other mysteries, notably Agatha Christie's, are also humorous, DEATHTRAP is cited as a mystery-comedy, although, like the old television show "Columbo", it's one in which there's no doubt as to whodunit. It's also, of all the great theatrical mystery classics, the one bordering the closest to farce. Audiences seeing the infamous set, Sidney's study, should immediately note four doors, a sure sign that mayhem of the not-always-deadly sort is about to ensue.
And it does, most notably in the person of internationally renowned Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp, portrayed with delightful glee by Chris Koslosky. Ten Dorp is one of the great comic smaller parts in theatre, and Koslosky meets the challenge admirably (it was no surprise to discover that she's also played Auntie Mame). Her first-act scene of psychic prediction is a delightful and pivotal piece of theatrical fluff. Her costuming is also spectacular - as flamboyant as everyone else's is conservative, it screams out that she's a television performer, always ready to appear on Merv Griffin, dismissive of other professional psychics - notably The Amazing Kreskin.
The Merv Griffin and Kreskin references are a warning to younger audience members - this play is firmly 1970's, and no updating of it will work. There can be no cell phones in this play; there must be a rotary-dial land line. There were no personal computers, let alone tablet computers, at that time, and computers would require a rewrite of the play. Allow yourself the luxury of understanding this antiquated technology and its necessity to the plot while you enjoy the show.
Marisa Hoover, last seen at YLT as Kate Monster in Avenue Q, once again plays a secondary role. In her previous performance, she was the muse for a Muppet, even though she appeared on stage. In this one, she plays Myra Bruhl, the quiet but increasingly disapproving wife of Sidney the playwright, an attractive woman with money who has been bankrolling her one-hit-wonder husband's career and pouring his increasingly frequent drinks for some time. Hoover is a talented actress, and it would be nice to see her bring just a touch more bite into Myra's disapproval of her husband's plans, but overall she is convincing as the woman who's concerned, and with good reason, about her husband's activities.
Matthew Sean McLaughlin makes for a solid Clifford Anderson, former student of Sidney's with a surefire hit mystery-thriller script. Clifford is a far more complex character than he appears to be at first, and McLaughlin is able to convey the nuances of the former welfare office clerk-turned-would-be playwright without overplaying Clifford's hand. McLaughlin and Quigley have the stage chemistry needed to make the two playwrights' personal dynamic work well throughout the convolutions of the script. Wayne Mundis as Porter Milgrim provides the steadying air of the old-fashioned, unimaginative but successful old-friend-of-the-family lawyer that still drops in on his clients in his brief appearances.
All in all, YLT's DEATHTRAP is a killer production. The intimacy of the Studio Theatre puts the audience almost into the middle of the situation, making them part of it rather than merely observers of events. Catch it if possible. At YLT through January 20; call 717-854-5715 or visit www.ylt.org for tickets.