Of Greed and Grief, Little Lake’s ‘Deathtrap’ Slays with Laughter
As a writer, historian, and frustrated playwright, I enjoy going to the theater whenever I can. I particularly love tightly-constructed murder mysteries. So much so that I’ve seen Ira Levin’s Deathtrap well more than twenty times, a perennial favorite of ambitious summer stock companies. Fact is, the play is so well-crafted that I would kill to have written it myself. Which is the very premise of this must-see thriller. Another fact is (at least according to Wikipedia,) Deathtrap still holds the title as the longest-running murder mystery on Broadway. (It ran for 1,793 performances from 1978 to 1982.)
Lie, cheat or steal yourself away to see Little Lake Theater’s current production of Deathtrap, onstage through August 6. You will get home alive. But you’ll be breathless. And not just from the scares; the laughs will slay you, too.
Envy: One of the Seven Deadly Sins
Once-famous playwright Sidney Bruhl has had a recent string of devastating theatrical flops. He and his wife Myra, living a secluded life in a remote, but gentrified farmhouse are facing financial ruin when a new script arrives in the morning’s mail. It’s a murder mystery written by one of Bruhl’s seminar students and it’s so good that Bruhl is instantly and murderously jealous. Myra suggests that Sidney should contact the student immediately and let him know that the famous Sidney Bruhl would be happy to help “polish” the script in exchange for part of the royalties. There’s no question: the play will earn millions.
Sidney jumps to. And the young playwright, Clifford Anderson, shows up that very evening with the only other copy of his new play. Bug-eyed with awe, the aspiring playwright is amazed at Sidney and Myra’s fancy farmhouse. It’s decorated with posters from all of Sidney Bruhl’s famous plays and, in particular, one wall displays all of the murder weapons he once employed onstage. Without so much as a sip of the ginger ale he’s first offered, Clifford is distracted by Myra’s insistence that her husband could help salvage his earnest first draft, while, at the same time, Bruhl is dazzling the young student with his collection of weapons, one of which just happens to come loose from the wall.
The play is the thing, as Shakespeare would say. But this play is itself a play…about a play. Dramatic irony has never been stretched so tautly––or as cleverly––as in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. But to pull it off, five actors must command the script. And, delightfully, this cast nails it.
Eric Leslie sets a brisk pace as the famous playwright. From his first entrance, it’s clear he knows his character. Both cocky and sly, his Bruhl is wholly confident––and wildly determined––in his deceptions. As Myra, Joyce Miller assumes the dutiful role of Sidney’s wife who convincingly resists––and then eagerly sides with––her husband’s devilish intent.
Arjun Kumar plays the student who has come to meet and embrace his idol. His is the hardest role to play, having to affect an innocence that sells himself to his hosts’ little scheme, but Kumar makes effortless work of his predicament. Of course, the Bruhls aren’t alone in their neck of the woods. Comic relief arrives in the form of Helga Ten Dorp, a celebrity psychic who is renting next door. Played coincidentally by Helga Terre, she bursts onto the stage—that is, into the Bruhls’ living room––with appropriate gusto, Dutch accent, and theatrical aplomb. Hers is one of the funniest characters Levin’s ever created, and Helga Terre does Helga Ten Dorp great justice. Finally, but not last nor least, is Andy Cornelius who plays Sidney Bruhl’s long time accountant and lawyer, Porter. His character must embody sobriety in all of the chaos that ensues, until, well… I won’t spoil the fun Cornelius creates.
This is a tight ensemble of energetic talent for which director J. Cody Spellman is due significant credit. Any great piece of theatrical writing is only as good as its director makes it; Spellman clearly adores this murderous romp as much as I do. And like credit is to be shared by the Scenic Director (Aria Dietrich,) Prop Master (Alex Keplar,) and a necessarily large technical crew led by Tucker Topel. The fight choreography was directed by Jose Perez.
Deathtrap is appropriately billed as a thriller with a cast of five, but the truth is it’s a thriller with five actors and a magnificent set. Little Lake offers an arena stage around which the audience sits on three sides. That makes most any living room drama they produce a real challenge, but this crew of young talented stage artists pulled off all of the challenges that Deathtrap must meet. Kudos, team!
A final word of praise is insufficient to congratulate Little Lake Theatre in its 75th year. Artistic Director Patrick Cannon and Producing Director Patti Knapp deserve much applause. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South, Canonsburg.(C.P.O.)
Photos: Hawk Photograph and MultiMedia LLC.
C. Prentiss Orr writes about theater for Entertainment Central. He has worked in theater management and has also taught theater. His latest book, The Surveyor and the Silversmith, is a history of white settlement, genocide, and land speculation in Western Pennsylvania.