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Deathtrap — Bucks County Playhouse

untitled (58) Ira Levin is one clever bugger.

In conceiving his 1978 comedy thriller, “Deathtrap,” Levin went beyond crafting a murder mystery, in which perpetrators believe they have executed the perfect, untraceable crime, to create a complex maze of a play in which every event doubles back on or foreshadows itself, every character has the cunning of a detective, each idea presented as fiction becomes in some way a reality, and each reality becomes fodder for fiction.

“Deathtrap” is as carefully woven as a fine Persian carpet.  Part of the fun of watching it is seeing how intricately Levin has manipulated his material to provide an array of tricks and surprises that make you admire the author’s ingenuity as much you become involved with his plot. Nothing is exactly at it seems, yet Levin practically tells you everything that will occur before it happens. His gamesmanship makes “Deathtrap” a delight, a crowd-pleaser that ranks among the longest-running plays in Broadway history and may well be the longest-running mystery. (Google confirms it is!)

Rather than write a play within a play, Levin wrote a play about a play. Lead character Sidney Bruhl, played at Bucks County Playhouse with droll urbanity by Saxon Palmer, is a well-known literary light famous for his dramas about murder. Bruhl is without a recent hit and is living off of his wife, Myra’s, inheritance while teaching at universities to earn extra shekels of his own. One day, out of the blue, a student who attended Bruhl’s seminar sends a play by mail for Sidney to critique. Bruhl recognizes the composition, entitled “Deathtrap,” as a commercially viable thriller and becomes jealous of his protégé’s prowess. He invites the younger playwright to his Westport, Conn. home allegedly to discuss “Deathtrap” and offer advice that might hone it into a Broadway success. He thinks of seeking a co-author’s agreement but speaks to Myra about killing the gifted fledgling, Clifford, and submitting “Deathtrap” for production as his own work.

Questions abound. I mentioned that Palmer plays Sidney as droll. Is he kidding about committing a murder? Teasing Myra even though she has a weak heart and is being treated for severe coronary difficulties? Would he really kill to extract a hit out of someone else’s writing?

That is what we have to learn, and that is what sets “Deathtrap” and Levin’s invention into motion. From the time of Clifford’s arrival to Sidney’s weapon-strewn study, nothing seen or heard can be taken for granted. Levin has pitted two playwrights, two people with imagination who can figure out each other’s motives and moves, against each other. Their cat-and-mouse game gives “Deathtrap,” the actual Levin play the Bucks County Playhouse is presenting, its suspense and its power to surprise and frighten. Meanwhile, Clifford’s “Deathtrap” becomes a point of contention on many levels. Levin leavens the stew by introducing one of Bruhl’s neighbors, an internationally celebrated psychic, Helga Ten Dorp, whose visionary clairvoyance has foiled many a criminal in Europe. Played deliciously by Marsha Mason, Helga adds to both the mayhem and the tension by sensing foul play, issuing warnings, and coming to unsettling conclusions. The seer is comic relief, especially as portrayed by Mason, who doesn’t miss an opportunity for a laugh, but, like every character, she gives us, the audience, clues about what to look for and fear.

Comedy is an integral part of “Deathtrap.” While it naturally has several instances when apprehension if rife, the conversations and conflicts in the play take the form of a drawing room comedy, main characters trying to outdo another in wit and much as in the higher stakes for survival.

Evan Cabnet’s production at Bucks County Playhouse gets the repartee right. Palmer is a great raconteur as Sidney, and he has a knack for making even his comic lines and arch suggestions sound ominous. His byplay with Myra, Clifford, Helga, and his friend and attorney, Porter Milgrim, is brisk and pointed. Sidney can be suave or acid in turn, and Palmer keeps him quite entertaining.

All of the BCP cast’s dialogue engages. The problem is the drawing room comedy, and catching Levin’s tricks and dramatic somersaults, take precedence over “Deathtrap’s” mystery. Cabnet has put his emphasis on the ready wit of Levin’s characters. Their conversation zings with life, but suspense, dread, and horror fall flat. Only the first of Levin’s surprises registers with any effect that would make the BCP audience gasp.  One could say subsequent murderous gambits are revealed in the dialogue or predicted by Helga. That wouldn’t account for their being less astonishing when enacted because the initial assault to which I refer is discussed at length before it is perpetrated, and it is quite a shocker.

I think suddenness and lack of genuine expectation are the reason the first violent incident has such a strong effect. Others are mitigated less by foreshadowing than by Cabnet tipping his hand and giving you reason to suspect something foul is about to occur. One important sequence is played too fast and too matter-of-factly for it to muster its complete horror. Another has too obvious a set-up. The audience not only suspects what’s coming. We see it coming, and that takes away some of the thrill.  BCP’s “Deathtrap” is enjoyable and entertaining, but it falls short on the level of suspense that makes a mystery exciting to watch.

To me, Cabnet seems a bit careless in letting major clues fall. One of “Deathtrap’s” biggest shocks involves an unexpected entrance. Calm after a storm should prevail as characters relax after a trying dramatic ordeal.  Sidney unnecessarily causes the audience to pay attention to a part of the stage that should not receive focus by constantly looking towards it and seeming anxiously impatient as he does so. The audience rightfully expects something to happen from that remote corner that interests Sidney so much he glances towards it twice and even seems to prepare for the intrusion to come. This starts the audience glancing with him and spoils one of Levin’s best and most scary maneuvers.

Another sequence that needs more meticulous attention is one that involves Sidney’s appearance when he first meets Helga Ten Dorp. His clothes and hand have telltale signs, visible to the audience, that he has been outdoors on what Helga’s costume, a yellow slicker and red rain boots, indicates is a breezy night with expected storms. No psychic is needed to spot such a strange circumstance. All is left too obvious.

Timing is off in another crucial scene that takes place on a dimmed stage. A struggle occurs, and it includes a brutal attack. The aftermath and effect of the struggle are among “Deathtrap’s” most intense moments, yet speed seems to be of the essence when the evolving ominousness of delay and anticipation might better secure the dramatic point.

In yet one more instance, the proximity of one character to another makes it clear something dire is going to take place. The problem is that “something” should come out of the blue and be the furthest thing from the audience’s mind instead of its certain expectation.

Cabnet, so good at setting the social tone of BCP’s production, seems to unwittingly sabotage the more uncomfortable and disturbing events in Levin’s script. Laughs take dominion over gasps, and no balance is struck between the affably conflicting and violently demonstrative portions of Levin’s neatly constructed play.

Cabnet is also a little bashful about intimacy between his characters. “Deathtrap” includes a gay relationship. There is at least one moment in which the gay couple should kiss and embrace in exultant celebration of what they have wrought as a couple. No such closeness occurs. The partners touch and clinch briefly, but their interaction is not romantic or affectionate. Levin’s brand of legerdemain would be enhanced if it was. It would make “Deathtrap” more convincing about a matter of which the audience may have doubts.

The BCP staging is a mixed bag. Its “Deathtrap” is thoroughly entertaining and offers gratifying diversion and a chance to admire the handiwork of a master plotter and dramatic strategist like Ira Levin. The show’s clever mechanics are, in primal ways, their own pleasure and reward. It really is fun to behold Levin’s devices and appreciate their clockwork intricacy.

Palmer and Mason also contribute wonderful moments as they make the verbal and physical most of their characters. Major elements of Cabnet’s production work, including its wry ending. Suspense remains at a minimum, replaced by seeing how ingeniously Levin crafted his script to create an elaborately impressive puzzle worthy of our time and attention.

Saxon Palmer finds the perfect tone for Sidney. He is humorously caustic and deliberate in speech while being polished and cultured in a way that befits his status as a literary light. Palmer knows how to mock and threaten while giving the impression Sidney is in charge of all situations and in command of his emotions, even when he has to deal with disappointment, betrayal, and stupidity.

Palmer’s unrattleable Sidney makes the character seem more desperate and more dangerous than if he showed his concerns and yielded to temper or disdain. You can tell something is seething inside, especially when trust is breached, and Sidney has something to defend and protect.

Palmer also makes us believe Sidney’s expertise as a strategist and of all kinds of weaponry.

Marsha Mason is a virtuoso who deftly uses tones of voice to add comic heft to her performance and Cabnet’s production. Just listening to the variety of readings and expression she can give her repeated line, “the pain,” is a lesson in smart comic acting.

Mason’s ease and polish show what’s missing from some other performances. She takes full command of the stage and has some nice little side bits, e.g. when she gestures toward her own red boots while trying to warn Sidney about a person in boots who might harm him.

Mason’s pacing, and her face as Helga is about to have a revelation, are flawless and funny. BCP has been lucky to have this consummate artist as an actor and director the last two seasons. I hope Mason’s presence in New Hope  becomes a long-standing habit.

Raviv Ullman brings youthful energy to the production as Clifford. Ullman plays Clifford as being callow and a tad duplicitous. It is a cunning performance but one that puts you on your guard about what Clifford might do and how he may respond to being thwarted in his intentions.

David Wohl serves well as Sidney’s lawyer. He has an especially good scene with Mason as Porter and Helga enter into a negotiation of ironic importance. Angela Pierce is graceful as Myra.

“Deathtrap” is performed with a curtain, and it is a wonder to behold Anne Louizos’s magnificent set as the BCP curtain rises.

Sidney is a great collector of props and weapons used in his plays. He has them displayed throughout the addition to his and Myra’s home that serves as his study. Louizos has made this room particularly handsome by arranging swords, knives, and other cutlery on a hunter green background that suits Sidney’s position as a country gentleman, albeit a Connecticut country gentleman. Other weapons are strategically placed, each one in a well-designed case, mount, or holder. The furnishing and other appointments, many dictated by Levin in his description of Sidney’s den, are beautifully chosen and show the taste and class of the Bruhls, Sidney and Myra. A partner desk that dominates stage right in the second act is particularly impressive. Louizos’s work is so meticulous, she matches Levin in the care she took to make “Deathtrap” realistic and convincing.

Paloma Young’s costumes capture the characters’ station and taste, T-shirts and flannels for Clifford, more starched items for Sidney and Myra. Porter’s suit is just right, as is one Sidney wears to a dinner party. Best of all are the yellow slicker and red boots for Helga.

Zach Blane’s lighting aims for the right mood and atmosphere, but the designer’s work is sometimes undercut by the tipping of what’s to come I found so distracting.

“Deathtrap” runs through Sunday, July 13 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. A 7:30 p.m. performance is scheduled for Wednesday, July 2. No show is scheduled for Friday, July 4. Tickets range from $59.50 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-862-2121 or by going online to www.bcptheater.org.

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