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MURDER, HE WROTE

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Does owning a weapon or writing about murder provide an opening for actually committing one? Sidney Bruhl, the charming and ironic playwright in Ira Levin’s "Deathtrap," the Gallery Players’ second presentation this season, believes this may be a distinct possibility. But only Levin, director Heather Siobahn Curran and the cast know the answer. The audience is kept guessing.

Indeed, Bruhl, a has-been playwright, finds himself in a position where murder might be the perfect solution to his extended dry spell: after 18 hitless years, a former student presents him with a play - "Deathtrap" - that’s a sure-fire hit.

"The play will earn $2 million, not including ’Deathtrap’ T-shirts," Bruhl (John Blaylock) tells his anxious wife, Myra (Patricia Lavin).

Despite his wife’s timid protests, Bruhl lures the unsuspecting young playwright, Clifford Anderson (Daniel Roach) to his home in Westport, Conn., unleashing a series of dramatic twists, reversals and surprises that inform this clever comic thriller.

Certainly, Levin has written a most literate script. There are many references to other thrillers, and the play the audience is seeing closely parallels the one being written on stage. It’s not difficult to conclude that Bruhl bears a close resemblance to Levin, a master of the genre.

Set designer Mark T. Simpson has wisely emphasized the importance of the script by incorporating the enlarged type of the script into the setting - a comfortable and attractive study, complete with a grandfather clock, glass double doors, an expensive-looking rug, and an impressive collection of pistols, swords, handcuffs, maces, battleaxes and other accoutrements of murder.

Many of these collectibles Bruhl has acquired from productions of his past thrillers. Others are gifts from friends. And some he has found by "prowl[ing] the antique shops."

In fact, the room itself is the perfect deathtrap, but for whom? "Deathtrap" keeps the audience perpetually on edge. And the suspense is only softened by the outrageous humor that somehow never conflicts with the deadly plot.

Is Bruhl really capable of murder? Why is his wife so nervous? Who is the young playwright, and is he really as innocent and naive as he seems? What has Blaylock’s lawyer, Porter Milgrim (David Crommett), observed? What does the clairvoyant Helga Ten Dorp (Sheila MacDougall) actually know, and is she going to solve the mystery, or is she merely comic relief (although, admittedly, the best comic relief this reviewer has seen in a long time)?

"Deathtrap" opened on Broadway Feb. 26, 1978 at the Music Box Theatre and later moved to the Biltmore for a run of 1,809 performances, which made it, at the time, the longest running play on Broadway and the longest running thriller by an American author. The play was nominated for four Tony awards. The 1982 film of the same name starred Michael Caine as Sidney Bruhl and Christopher Reeve as Clifford Anderson.

It’s easy to see what attracted audiences to "Deathtrap." The play is ingeniously constructed and seamlessly blends suspense and humor, so the audience spends half the time laughing and the other half gasping. In fact, Bruhl himself gives an apt description of the play when he is summing up the manuscript Anderson has sent him: "A thriller in two acts, one set. Five characters. A juicy murder in Act One, unexpected developments in Act Two. Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places. Highly commercial."

"Deathtrap" is not only a classic thriller but a wonderful parody of the classic thriller.

In addition to an excellent script and a supportive set, this production owes much of its success to the stellar performances of Blaylock and MacDougall.

"Deathtrap" is Blaylock’s fourth play with Gallery. He has previously been seen as Milo Tindle in "Sleuth," Geoffrey Duncan in "The Sisters Rosensweig," and Edward Sheridan in "Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me." (Movie-goers can also catch him in Ron Howard’s "A Beautiful Mind," and soap opera fans may recall him as the notorious Patrick Hudson on ABC’s "All My Children.)

In "Deathtrap," Blaylock doesn’t display a devastating British accent, as he did in "Sleuth," but he does, once again, create an engaging character of dubious motives. Blaylock is detached, debonair and sexy. So much so that it’s hard to understand why he stays married to his stiff and humorless wife. (If only Lavin had been a bit more hysterical, the play might have been perfect!)

MacDougall is absolutely divine, with her Swedish accent and hand-clasping, breast-pounding theatrics. Her over-the-top performance is just the right balance to Blaylock’s understated and controlled presentation.

What a fine revival!

 

"Deathtrap" plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, through Nov. 10. Tickets are $15, children under 12 and seniors $12. The Gallery Players’ theater is located at 199 14th St. in Park Slope. Call (718) 595-0547 for ticket and performance information.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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