If you like rollercoaster rides, then Metro Theatre’s staging of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap as part of its 51st season is for you. This satirical thriller winds its way through more twists and turns than any ride at the PNE. Levin, who has penned such classics as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, steps it up a notch with this macabre mix of Monty Python meets Sleuth, with a twist of Macbeth thrown in for good measure. Stephen King called Levin, “the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels.”
Deathtrap ran on Broadway for 1,800 performances over four years and garnered a Tony nomination for best play. In 1982, it was made into a film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.
The play-within-a-play format is based on the premise of an aging Broadway playwright, Sidney Bruhl, whose repertoire consists of one set, five-character thrillers, such as The Murder Game and Blind Justice. However, writer’s block has landed him in a dry spell and he has not had a hit for 18 years. He is reduced to teaching college seminars to aspiring writers – or “twerps,” as he calls them, while living off his wife’s fortune. A young student, Clifford Anderson, shows him a script that looks like it could be a smash hit. It’s called Deathtrap, and guess what? It is a one-set, five-character thriller. Only Bruhl has seen the manuscript. When Anderson wants to discuss his work with his teacher, Bruhl sees a light at the end of his tunnel and tells his wife, Myra, of a killer idea to get his hands on the manuscript. He invites the young man to his remote New England retreat and tells him to bring all the copies of his play with him. Anderson has no family and has not told anyone where he is going. Need I say more? As in an Agatha Christie play, A Murder is Announced – but is it really?
Houdini handcuffs, a garroting, a body dragged out to be buried, a resurrection, a heart attack, a double murder and a clairvoyant who has a premonition about it all, are all part of the thickening plot. The audience cannot be sure that this is going to end well for anyone as it grapples with hidden meanings, plot reversals and deceit until the final coup de theatre.
The set is very simple – a quaint old colonial farmhouse with the attached stable converted into a beamed study for Bruhl’s writing, replete with a crackling fireplace. A desk with a manual typewriter sits front and centre. The walls are covered with posters from Bruhl’s Broadway hits and an assortment of antique weaponry from those plays, including maces, swords, daggers and a cross-bow, visual spoilers, perhaps?
Community members Melanie Preston (who was profiled in the Jewish Independent, Sept. 10, 2010), playing Myra, Bruhl’s nervous wife, and Deborah Tom, as the Bruhls’ nosey Dutch psychic neighbor, carry the female roles. In an e-mail interview, Preston noted that, “The character of Myra is a wonderful challenge. When I first read the script, she surprised me, so I am trying to do the same for the audience, but it is always challenging to make someone real while honoring the script. I have worked hard to study my internal motivations with the other characters and to bring what Myra struggles with to life.” Added to that motivation is the fact that Preston’s true-life significant other, James Behenna, plays naïve Anderson. “I have always wanted to work on stage with James again,” she said. “He is a very good actor, and it’s nice to have both a hubby and a boyfriend in the play.”
Tom said she has fond memories of her early acting days at Vancouver’s Peretz School under the tutelage of Lerner Bossman and Claire Klein Osipov, where she developed her passion for theatre. By e-mail she said she “fondly remembers the elaborate productions with beautiful sets and costumes performed in the auditorium of the old, one-storey building, with the aromas of all the goodies the babas were making in the adjacent kitchen. Everyone contributed and it is this sense of community that [I have] found here in our local nonprofit theatre organizations such as Metro.”
In this production, Tom plays Helga Van Torp, a renowned psychic. With her ersatz accent, she provides much of the comic relief. Drew Taylor is convincing as the suave but cunning Bruhl. His one-line witticisms are barbed with delicious bitterness as he complains that “nothing recedes like success.” Behenna’s Anderson is the perfect counterpoint to Bruhl’s sophistication. Director Don Briard does quadruple duty, not only showing his thespian talents in a smaller role as Bruhl’s lawyer, Milgrim, but also as set, lighting and sound designer for the play.
On preview night, some of the actors had trouble with their timing and Tom’s accent needs some work, but all of this should improve over the course of the run. Some critics have labeled the play dated and a genre past its sell-by date. This reviewer does not agree – there is nothing like a good bout of murder and mayhem for one’s entertainment pleasure. Deathtrap runs until Feb. 8. Tickets are available at 604-266-7191 or metrotheatre.org.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.