Review: Deathtrap by Georgetown Palace Theatre
by Michael Meigs
There was plenty of suspense at the Georgetown Playhouse last weekend. The storefront playing space on the north side of the Palace Theatre block was practically full, with almost a hundred audience members closely ranked around the ground-floor thrust stage adroitly designed by Justin Dam. Most were properly masked, although I spotted some noses—including those of a couple of teenagers seated directly to my right. The ventilation was undetectable.
Are we treating ourselves to COVID?
Fortunately not. The intervening days have shown no sign, and in passing, I salute the stalwart performers who braved that same situation and who so far have escaped COVID-unscathed. So now I can turn my attention to Ira Levin's Deathtrap, the thriller/comedy that persists in community theatres across the country, as inevitable as those lantana bushes in your front yard.
Levin's play was staged in New York in 1978 and ran for four years. Levin and his estate (he passed away in 2007) have continued to enjoy the royalties from this property. It has popped up again and again right across the country ever since. In recent years Deathtrap has been staged by the Boerne Community Theatre, Fredericksburg Theater Company, the Harlequin at Ft. Sam Houston near San Antonio, and Unity Theatre in Brenham. The Lakeway Players wanted to do it in March, 2020, but that production was quashed by COVID.
Part of the appeal of Deathtrap is the tongue-in-cheek drollery of a playwright writing a play about a playwright--who's writing a play about a playwright writing a play. Nothing could be more "meta" -- and in fact, this was less than a decade after the term "meta-fiction" was invented. The term bears some explanation. After all, here we are in Facebook's new assertion of a "metaverse" -- a digital rabbit hole that threatens to occupy even more of your bandwidth. By comparison, Deathtrap's deceptions seem almost benign and they certainly are enjoyable.
Meta-fiction is created work that's self-referential; the author comments upon his own presence and relationship to the story. There was a mid-twentieth-century indulgence in this sort of work in fiction, theatre, and cinema. You can Google it. The authors tease their readers and audiences, reminding them of the artifices of story telling.
Levin's script uses quite a bit of distraction and sleight-of-hand. Playwright Sydney Bruhl, a fading star, hasn't had a hit play in a very long time (check out those framed posters displayed on the wall behind the central section of the audience). He declares to Myra, his wife of eleven years, that he has just received a play titled Deathtrap done by one of his students, a sure-fire work that he'd be willing to kill for. As we listen to him rant and then cajole the student to visit, it seems apparent that he means exactly what he says.
There will be violence, given heart-stopping intensity by Faith Castenada's lighting design. And prepare yourselves: the appalling murder will be followed by another, more sinister and malicious.
Levine mixes the ghastly with the grotesque, hauling in an aged female psychic played by Andrea Littlefield. You'd think that Helga Ten Dorp, given her very Dutch name, would be a robust aged blonde, but she speaks a bizarrely broken English that sounds more like a reversion from the Yiddish. Littlefield's is a bravado performance. The playwright—Levin, not the fictional Bruhl—endows her wth extraordinary insight and prescience, so much so that she becomes a figure of fun. And then there's Bruhl's sober-sided lawyer, Gregg Watkins as Porter Milgrim, Esq.—a reassuring down-to-earth counselor in early scenes but not believable as a frustrated playwright in the last comic confrontation with the Dutch/Jewish prophetess.
Damon Brown as playwright Bruhl is too glib in the opening scenes, suggesting his zeal to grab his student's "sure-fire" play and his willingness to commit violence to do so. Suzanne Orzech as Myra, his wife of eleven years, reacts appropriately, astonished and horrified, although we in the audience don't really believe it. His character's rhythm suggests he's not thinking about the prospective crime; he doesn't pause to contemplate the enormity of what his words are suggesting. And there's no sign he's weighing their effect upon Myra. It's not until after catastrophe strikes that playwright Sydney Bruhl clicks into character, reacting appropriately to those around him.
Levin the playwright cheats us. One of these characters has a dire heath condition, but we don't learn that until there's a corpse on the floor. The relationship between Bruhl and his apprentice playwright Clfford is left poorly defined by Levin, although Zachariah Lenton in that role is cheerful, plausible, and trusting. But those were the 1970's, when same-sex attractions had to be severely stifled.
Deathtrap has a surprise or two that will whip-saw you. The combination of the meta-wit and the fiendish plotting is certainly enough to astonish and entertain. The Georgetown Playhouse production is a deft, amusing evening with an appealing cast and clever outcome.
No wonder this play is so popular all cross the U.S.A.!
January 14 - February 13, 2022
809 S. Austin Avenue
directly across the street from the Georgetown Palace Theatre
Georgetown, TX, 78626
The production will open Friday, January 14, 2022 and close Sunday, February 13, 2022.
Palace Playhouse 216 W. 8th Street Georgetown TX 78626.