Review: ‘Deathtrap’ at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope is a mesmerizing whodunit

Marsha Mason and Angela Pierce in 'Deathtrap' at the Bucks County Playhouse

Marsha Mason and Angela Pierce in ‘Deathtrap’ at the Bucks County Playhouse

By John Dwyer

For me, there’s no better summer entertainment than a good mystery. So, I was excited to see one of my favorite murder mystery stage plays, Deathtrap, at my favorite local professional theater, the Bucks County Playhouse.

This show played on Broadway for four years, making it the longest-running comedy thriller ever for the Great White Way. It’s no surprise that the plays chosen for this season at the Playhouse have been tried and true successes on the Broadway stage, with stellar credentials to recommend them. So, no one should be disappointed by the craftsmanship of the writing in Deathtrap. Fans of playwright Ira Levin, who also wrote the novels A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, will recognize his familiar suspicion of human nature and theme involving those who compromise their scruples and their souls for an easy life.

In Deathtrap, described as a play within a play, the main character is the ever-witty playwright Sidney Bruhl (Saxon Palmer), who is frustrated that he has hit a wall in his career by not producing a Broadway success in some time. He has been teaching a college writing seminar while trying to get over a case of writer’s block. One of his students, Clifford Anderson (Raviv Ullman), mails him a transcript of a play that is not just good, but great and highly commercial. Clifford admires the urbane, older playwright.

The plot revolves around whether to help the young man with his play, or somehow take it away from him. Sidney is dependent on his wife Myra (Angela Pierce), whose money is keeping the household afloat, and he yearns for the financial success and professional recognition a hit play can bring. Central themes include money, power, identity, morality and relationships.

Sidney has an obligation to his student to help, and a spousal responsibility to his wife to care for her, but he desperately wants to be back on top professionally, and may stop at nothing to get there. Plot reversals abound as the characters reveal whom they are and what they are capable of to themselves and each other.  Through much of the play one is literally on the edge of one’s seat, while Sidney’s sardonic wit and the occasional appearance of a neighbor provide enough laughs to cause one to fall off the chair and onto the floor. Marsha Mason’s portrayal of the visiting psychic next door neighbor, Helga ten Dorp, provides the comic relief with her visions of impending disaster.

Not much more can be said about the plot without revealing secrets, but the script is first-rate and will have your mind reeling with the fascinating intricacies of the story.

In terms of the production itself, this reviewer attended on opening night, and experienced a half hour delay due to technical issues. No one seemed to mind that much, but as mentioned by the producer in a curtain speech before the show, summer stock with limited rehearsal periods may have a few bumps. This play is known for its clever reversals, but what facilitates all this mad deceit is the complicated relationships between the three principals, and in that, at least on opening night, this production fell a tad short.   Since all the actors seem to be on the right track, the extra days of  rehearsal may have already given the final product this important quality. That said, this is a fine production overall, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The casting was interesting. The original role on Broadway of Myra was undertaken by the delicate, more average-looking Marian Seldes, and the role of Clifford by the handsome leading man Victor Garber.  The casting of the beautiful Ms. Pierce and the boyish Mr. Ullman can work to the advantage of the play, but it does change a bit of the dynamic in the character relationships.

A note about the marvelous Marsha Mason. The part of the snoopy, psychic neighbor, Helga ten Dorp, is a plum role and a scene-stealer. Her timing is impeccable, and she milks every laugh possible out of the script.  Wide eyed, her visions come to her with child-like wonderment. With an enchanting Dutch accent, she is endearing.

The staging is tricky and done flawlessly. The writing room in the Buhls’ Connecticut country home, where the entire play is set, is elegantly handsome with wood paneling and a prominently-featured collection of knives, axes, guns and other sundry killing apparati. Framed window cards of past plays written by Sidney adorn the back wall. Kudos to the director (Evan Cabnet) for the staging, the scene designer for the set (Ann Louizos),  and lighting designer (Zach Blaine) for the lighting.

Hilariously sinister and diabolically clever, this Deathtrap is must-see summer fare. With guaranteed heart-stopping tension, peppered with gut-splitting laughter, this is a ticket to kill for.

Deathtrap will be appearing through July 13 at the Bucks County Playhouse (215) 862-2121. Tickets are $29- $59.50, and running time is about two hours and 15 minutes with intermission.

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