SALT LAKE CITY — What would you do to achieve success? Is success worth achieving at any cost? Is it worth another person’s life? In Deathtrap a down-on-his-luck playwright named Sydney Bruhl (played by Thom Sesma) needs a hit to save him from his financial troubles. When a brilliant script from his student arrives in the mail, Sydney conspires to murder his student and steal his play. Sydney’s wife, Myra (played by Gayton Scott), however, is horrified by her husband’s idea. Also in the story are Sydney’s lawyer and a Dutch psychic who temporarily lives next door, both of whom help move the story along.
Because of the plot twists in this suspense story (like Dial M for Murder or Wait Until Dark), Deathtrap has changes in mood that would be challenging for many directors. However, May Adrales’s direction deftly handled these variations in the script. Adrales’s vision made the plot twists acceptable and justifiable. The black humor is with the threat of violence that permeates some of the scenes.
Sesma’s performance as the bitter, cynical Sydney was commendable, mostly because Sesma unrelentingly showed how immoral and shallow the character was. Sesma also delivered Sydney’s sardonic dialogue pointedly, which seemed with each word to emphasize profound unhappiness. Scott’s performance as the supportive, nurturing wife Myra was refreshing in its contrast to Sesma’s performance. Myra was a genuinely sympathetic character, and I enjoyed Scott’s performance of Myra’s moral struggle as she grappled with her husband’s murderous intentions.
Devin Norik played Clifford, Sydney’s student, who has written a brilliant play (also called Deathtrap, which resembles the real Deathtrap more and more as the play progresses). Like Sydney, Clifford is a flawed character whose goals lead him to consider actions that were morally reprehensible. Novik’s performance was best during the plot twists near the end of each act, although I found Clifford’s foresight and planning to be hard to believe.
While I enjoyed the production elements, I found Deathtrap to be a disappointing play. The novelty of the characters writing the play that they are in wears off after a while, and the metafictional references become less interesting as the second act progresses. Where Ira Levin’s script is the strongest is its structure. Like a well designed Molière play or The Comedy of Errors, the careful plotting of the story gives the action a logical flow and makes normally unbelievable events plausible. However, the structure is also a weakness because it forces the characters to act in ways that prolong the story unnecessarily (such as the final scene) and preserve the play’s symmetrical structure.
I also found the exposition to be clunky, as was the use of a psychic character in the foreshadowing. Although Kymberly Mellen‘s flawless performance as Helga Ten Dorp added some color to the play, the dialogue was not funny enough to move the play into the realm of black comedy and balance out the unpleasant subject matter (like in Arsenic and Old Lace). Many of the jokes in the play (written in 1978) have not aged well, and I was disappointed that some interesting plot points (like the amount of money Sydney has in the second act) are not sufficiently developed.
The best visual element in the play is Daniel Zimmerman’s set design. The single massive set was nicely decorated with the weapons, theatrical posters, and other items that were important for the play’s action and setting. Karl E. Haas‘s lighting design, although not flashy, augmented the rustic beauty of Zimmerman’s set and also supported Adrales’s efforts to create a mood appropriate for each moment. Haas’s lighting choices during the scene changes were also nice, and they lent a little bit of artistry to a play that doesn’t grapple with any high ideals.
Overall, Deathtrap is a play that is full of surprises, and the way the characters flirt with breaking the fourth wall is sometimes clever. All of the work from the performers or creative team is serviceable, but nothing reaches the level of truly great theatre. Potential patrons should also do their research about the play before attending because some may find some of the content inappropriate for their children or teenagers.