BWW Reviews: DEATHTRAP With Marsha Mason at Bucks County Playhouse
DEATHTRAP is perhaps the most amusing work of the late Ira Levin, a man whose career defines the more-or-less domestic thriller. From THE STEPFORD WIVES to ROSEMARY'S BABY, SILVER, and VERONICA'S ROOM, Levin made the home a frightening place, full of everything from brainwashing to peeping Toms to Satan. So, why not a little murder?
But Levin was also one of the funniest of authors, as well - his stage and screen adaptations of NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS proved that, as did CRITIC'S CHOICE and the unfortunate but musically charming DRAT! THE CAT! He managed to combine both genres, quite perfectly, in DEATHTRAP. It's one of the most "meta" of plays, as well, a five-character, one-set murder mystery about a playwright who's looking for a new hit in his string of once-successful... but now declining... run of five-character, one-set murder mysteries.
It's also currently at Bucks County Playhouse, directed by Drama Desk and Lortel Award nominee Evan Cabnet, who clearly is delighting in directing this five-character, one-set murder comedy. Whether he's done so fully successfully is a question, though there's a great deal absolutely right with it.
The most right thing? Marsha Mason as Helga ten Dorp, the dubiously accurate Dutch psychic. Taken for a fraud, and an embarrassment on her most recent television appearance with (shades of placing your story firmly in its period) Kreskin on the Merv Griffin Show, she's always predicting things that might - just might - resemble what actually happens. It's a deliberately comic role, and Mason is now the age for it; it's not a young woman's role. It's intended to be comic relief, though it winds up being more integral to the show than those who know it not realize on their first viewing of this classic. It's also done brilliantly by Mason, who seems so natural in it that she could have been playing ten Dorp for years. Mason, admittedly, is hamming it up, and appears to be enjoying herself doing so, but it's a part meant to be hammed up. There is no understatement to ten Dorp unless you're playing her wrong, and Mason isn't.
Saxon Palmer as Sidney Bruhl, author of "The Murder Game" and other deadly hits, a man who collects real and prop weaponry from the Middle Ages on, and displays them in his study as if they are inspiration rather than trophies - indeed, Bruhl lives for trophies, including his trophy wife, Myra - is spot-on as a man with a plan (to kill his wife). Unfortunately, he's a bit of a failure with Plan B, or Plan C, contingency, along with his current failure to have any new show plots in mind. And David Wohl is a delight in his part as Porter Milgrim, Bruhl's attorney and friend - he dominates the stage seemingly without even trying, just as lawyers in real life tend to take over rooms and conversations when they come in. (Author note: this author is also a lawyer, and has the years of experience to make this claim.) He feels real.
But Angela Pierce just seems a bit too young and healthy against Palmer to pull off a completely successful Myra, rich trophy wife and intended victim, who's supposed to be able to be scared into a coronary. Her vague concerns and fears, as played by Pierce, seem more as if she's due for Xanax or Klonopin than a heart attack. And Raviv Ullman's Clifford Anderson is just not right for the part. Despite the changes made for the movie of DEATHTRAP, the casting of Christopher Reeve was utterly right for the part physically - a fairly large, apparently strong, actor is needed physically for the role. And against Palmer's acting, Ullman's is flat. Given the cynical, doublecrossing, backstabbing, possibly sociopathic, nature of Clifford's personality, the actor has to come off as an intelligent but slightly unreachable charmer. Ullman doesn't. He feels much more like a very young college student who's in thrall to his mentor and willing to go along with Bruhl's plot, which is a wrong take on the character. He never quite reaches sinister, pathological, or even suspicious.
The set is astonishingly apt, one that truly evokes "author's study" and that gives insight into Bruhl's character - and that does look exactly like a room that could be walked into by the audience.
There were, however, a few clear line lapses on the parts of some cast members when this reviewer attended (well past opening night, it should be noted), particularly Palmer, and the choices of period music played at various points during the show or while setting mood before acts seemed peculiar to audience members as well as to this writer. Billy Joel's "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" is a period choice, yes, but it's a complex and attention-grabbing song that is the type likely to make an audience member believe it's carrying a message relevant to the show. It doesn't. This writer's companion, who knows both the song and the show, hearing it coming from the stage immediately prior to the first act, turned around and simply asked, "Why?" It's jarring.
There are also a few spots in the first act that are simply unbearably slow. Cabnet's pacing in the middle of the first act is sufficient to lose audience attention. It's also not required in the story that Bruhl be English, unless he's Michael Caine, as in the film, in which case he's certainly English.
Bruhl says that "even a gifted director" can't ruin his fictional DEATHTRAP. The real one, however, can be affected by its director, and by less-than-tight production and casting. But indeed, this writer has seen far, far worse... and this production is worth it for Mason and for the interactions of Mason and Wohl.
Through July 13 at Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope. For tickets and information, call 215-862-2121, or visit www.BCPTheater.org.