BWW Review: DEATHTRAP at Princeton Summer Theater Surprises
DEATHTRAP at Princeton Summer Theater comes with big expectations. The story, by the prolific writer Ira Levin, is well-known for its long run on Broadway (a young Victor Garber earned a Tony nomination in the role of Clifford Anderson) and the 1982 film, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, known to most audiences at the time as simply Superman.
C. Luke Soucy steps into the role of "washed-up thriller playwright" Sidney Bruhl confidently, exuding a deft connection with the wit, tempo, and maturity of the character. His precision, a talent he demonstrated as director of PST's 2017 production of SPIDER'S WEB, pays off, anchoring the production whenever he's on stage, which is often. Abby Melick, as the eccentric and prophetic Helga Ten Dorp, is another PST regular, who once again shines with her comic timing and captivating connection to character.
The story itself, a thriller instigated when a former student brings a has-been playwright a draft of a promising new play, hinges on Levin's clever structure and willingness to shock an audience with surprising but believable twists. There's a reason, perhaps, the movie poster presented the characters locked in a Rubik's Cube. The image not only evokes the specific era of the play, it represents a dependent framework, one in which each character's move, and motivation, sets off another.
This production, however, externalizes much of the game. Instead of grounding the play in the specific world the playwright depicted, one that forces upon the characters the motivation and conflicts that make their actions interesting and complex, it uses the world as a launching point for reinterpretation. Certainly, the creative PST team is talented and deliberate. Princeton Summer Theater is overflowing with artistic creativity and heart.
But the questions one ponders after watching this production have less to do with the plot's clever twists and more to do with whether these reinterpretations serve the play. The costumes are gorgeous, but detract from the tension of the unraveling plot, telling their own story. The music, too, asserts an independent narrative. This is not to say that a play written in 1978 does not merit reinterpretation. But this play-grounded as it is in motivation-requires a certain confrontation with the specific mores of the era in which it was written, even when they are no longer unchallenged or even tolerated.
Sidney huffs about the "women's libbers" and the playwright describes the character, Myra, Sidney's wife, as "self-effacing" wearing a sweater and a skirt. I understand the inclination to reject that description and turn Myra into a woman with more strength and independence, dressing her in pants and wearing her skepticism, instead of her self-doubt, on her sleeve.
But then her actions, and the cascade of reactions, no longer make sense. The same is true of other reinterpretations.
As the king of thrillers Stephen King advises in his book On Writing, offering a quote that has been attributed to many and can apply to any artistic impulse that detracts, you must "Kill your darlings...."
It's an apt quote. One the seasoned, if old, Sidney Bruhl might agree with.
DEATHTRAP, by Ira Levin. Directed by Annika Bennett. Hamilton Murray Theater. $29.50 General Admission, $24.50 Students and Matinees. July 4-21, 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Saturday and Sundays. For tickets and more information, call 732-997-0205 or visit princetonsummertheater.org.
Photo Credit: Kristen Traudt