As the season winds down, Port Tobacco Players joins with many theatres in producing a lovely piece of nostalgia. “Deathtrap” is knowingly self-referential, wryly witty, and convoluted enough to provide some surprises. It is reminiscent of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit—it concerns a writer, a wife ends up dead, a clairvoyant just happens to be in the neighborhood.
‘Deathtrap’ is one of those crowd-pleasing plays that you really can’t go wrong with—it’s witty, delicious to stage, and murder among the upper crust can be delightfully droll.
“Deathtrap” holds the record for the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway, and was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play. Simply put, it’s the story of an aging playwright who desperately needs a hit and concocts a plan to lure to his Connecticut home a young playwright who has written an astounding thriller, and kill him and pass of the play as his own.
But this is a play that references itself, so there are twists ahead. There are murders within murders, plots within plots, and an awful lot of whiskey and gin being drunk. It’s also a very balanced play—two acts, three scenes each act, five in the cast total, and even the set decorations are balanced on each side.
For this production, Brian Donohue plays Sidney Bruhl, the blocked playwright; Heather Wetherald is Myra Bruhl, the wealthy wife who supports him (the wealthy wife with a heart condition and a tendency toward hysteria); Christopher Fleming is Clifford Anderson (the young playwright seemingly thrilled to have a chance to meet and possibly collaborate with a prize-winning BROADWAY playwright; Leslie Kobylinski as the Dutch clairvoyant Helga Ten Dorp; and Larry Daniele as Porter Milgrim, the family lawyer.
As Sidney, Donohue has a hint of the louche, man-of-the-world-weariness combined with expectations of being waited on hand and foot that so embodied the 1970s. Fleming as Anderson is delightful, especially in the first act, where his boyishness and aw-shucks freshness hold a barely perceptible hint of a threat.
Given when the play was written, both women seem more like afterthoughts/stereotypes. One is a wealthy wife who is seemingly content to act as her husband’s secretary—a handmaiden in the great man’s service to his art; the other is a ditzy blonde with ESP who, while she has helped police throughout Europe solve crimes, is seen as a pawn by the men.
But one of the most genuine moments in the play comes when Sidney requests Myra’s help with and she freezes, mute and with one frozen-eyed stare and one adamant shake of her head makes clear her squeamishness and fear and loathing at what she actually was a party to.
As the attorney Porter Milgrim, Larry Daniele gives a solid performance as a certain type of club man who golfs and gives his clients cautious, well-thought-out advice.
The set was beautifully designed to take advantage of the Port Tobacco Theatre’s surprisingly large stage; it encompasses an entrance hall, stairways leading up, a halls leading to the formal living areas and the kitchen, and then a framed opening leading to the study, which is large and well-appointed, with lots of rich-man toys. Set decoration was done by Tessa Silvestro (who also worked the soundboard) and Benjamin Simpson, and Kim Moore Bessler on properties; they did a masterful job of finding/creating the objects, many of which are as much a part of the story as the words.
And kudos needs to go to Tommy Scott, who is responsible for the lighting design, and Jason Klonkowski for sound design. Particularly during the storm sequence in the second act, the timing, loudness and synchronization were superb. Craig Hower (combat choreography and special effects) created visually stunning moments in their brutality and effect.
“Deathtrap” is one of those crowd-pleasing plays that you really can’t go wrong with—it’s witty, delicious to stage, and murder among the upper crust can be delightfully droll. It’s also a bit dated; it was very of the moment in 1978 and while the references to Merv Griffin and the like got hearty laughs from some of the audience, there were noticeable pockets of polite smiles.
Advisory: Cigarette smoking; some gunshots.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission.
‘‘Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts” by Ira Levin, Port Tobacco Players runs from May 17 – June 2, 2019, at Port Tobacco Theatre, La Plata, MD. For more information, please click here.