Deathtrap is a theatrical version of an M.C. Escher woodcut, a play within a play with seemingly endless twists and turns that mock the concept of theatrical plot and device. When pulled off, the audience is engaged, if not dizzied, by the wonderment of the tension between the script of the play and its on-stage demands, which are constantly at war with one another (think the famous Escher lithograph Drawing Hands). The show is mind boggling and fun. It is for these reasons that Deathtrap holds the distinction of the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway and received a Tony nomination for Best Play in 1978. It is also for these reasons that it continues to be produced as it is through December 18, at Play On! Theatre.
In order to prevent the sidewinding plot from manipulating the production, Deathtrap requires a certain liveliness and impeccable timing. Martyn Kyle, the least experienced of all the actors in the cast, does the best job with energy level and believability in his portrayal of Clifford Anderson. He demonstrates a great natural fluency with the critical timing required to induce great laughs. The audience was particularly delighted by a bit in which Kyle uses well-placed pauses amidst other key clacking cadences as he types on an old fashioned Smith Corona typewriter.The play is set in Westport, Connecticut at the home of Sidney and Myra Bruhl. Sidney has been living off Myra’s money and needs a hit show to boost his ego and their bank account. A young student, Clifford Anderson, has sent him a fantastic script for feedback, and Sydney’s needs start to get the best of him, setting off a chain reaction of deceptions and a few murders. The time period comes into play through the inclusion of hit Barry Manilow tunes, which fill the theatre as patrons enter, and are used to keep the audience engaged during set changes. The set features a hodgepodge of furniture denoting an upper middle class home and an intriguing wall decorated with Sydney’s antique weapons collection. Front and center stage stands Sydney’s writing desk, a symbol of his centrality in the play, as the plot and other characters revolve around him and the writing that happens in that spot.
The impact of Deathtrap’s plot could have been sharpened in Play On!’s production by strengthening the relationships between characters, especially Myra and Sydney, played respectively by Jeannie Jones and William Howard Rough. The actors’ chemistry is at its lowest when Sydney and Myra hug, and what is supposed to be a post-murder flash of sexual attraction gets executed as a “friend” hug —you know, politely touching at the torso like you do with your aunt. A fully-realized connection would up the tension in the production, as well as the excitement.
Play On!’s mission is to provide a space for amateurs to participate in the challenges and joys of live theater production. They do it for the love of theater, but they also put on an engaging, entertaining show. Deathtrap is a great distraction from all the holiday hubbub—especially if you like a good mind bend.