Plays within plays 

Building a better Deathtrap

When you match an actor with a part he was born for, the rest of the play will follow him like a well-behaved class. T.J. Charlson, director of MCT’s Deathtrap, has cast most of the five roles in Ira Levin’s murder mystery thriller with newcomers, faces fresh to the Missoula boards. But in the principal role of Syndey Bruhl—the vain, funny, intelligent, envious playwright emeritus of the American stage—Charlson plants Brien Sankey, who has participated in dozens of local productions over the past two decades. Sankey has always been reliable. In this role, however, he is vividly alive, as if he has tapped into facets of himself he was dying to explore and expose, which makes Deathtrap not only great fun but also intimate. Sankey reveals Sidney the man behind Sidney the performance.

Intimacy is important for suspense. The play, book, or movie that concerns itself with suspense must lure you in, whisper in your ear, snake an arm around your shoulder and gently guide you to a secret spot. With this responsibility at the front of his mind, Sankey drives the drama of this production. Sankey delights in his character’s baser aspects—the upstaging, the vanity and the craven desire for money. At the same time, he gives Sidney warmth and compassion. Sidney revels in his boundless sense of humor and word play, peacefully enjoys the monarchy of his capacious study and winningly admits to his failures and weaknesses. Sidney is a fading talent, a man once celebrated and successful with big mystery hits on Broadway. Reduced to living off his wife’s money in a comfortable Connecticut home, he teaches summer seminars to “twerps” for a little extra prestige and income. Creatively, he has run dry. When Deathtrap opens, Sidney is just finishing reading a script sent to him by one of those young twerps, a play, he tells his wife, he would kill to have written. They joke about it, and he allows the joke to heat up, simmer and boil, until his wife, played by Rachel Winick, isn’t sure if she truly knows the man she married or not.

Enter the young, hopeful playwright Clifford Anderson (played by Scott Reilly with the athletic vulnerability of a deer, though his character proves far from docile, and Reilly nicely strips back the layers of Cliff’s accomplished facade). Before the curtain falls on intermission, three murders will have been enacted, each with its own set of revelations.

Charlson skillfully moves Deathtrap from the realm of upper-middle-class domestic drawing-room farce to the far less comfortable world of the clever spook. The play-within-a-play device is handled deftly by author Ira Levin, who cheerfully builds up the layers of reality and deception so that his play becomes a vintage jewel—plain, old-fashioned entertainment, complete with the comic foreigner in the personage of Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Alice Spritz). Charlson honors Levin’s material, favoring a traditional interpretation. Homosexual love has a large role in the lives on stage, a theme Levin included but did not emphasize in 1979. Charlson could have teased the gay issues into prominence, especially just now as gay union is brilliant in the national spotlight, but the director chooses to mute the homosexuality, perhaps so as not to distract from the murder mystery or ruffle the sensibilities of MCT’s more conservative subscribers.

Mike Monsos lights this world in creamy ambers, something antique and studiously theatrical about it all, nicely contrasted with the stark moonlight of nighttime’s shenanigans. Don Fuhrmann and Des Rooney, scenic artist and set designer respectively, have invented a comfortable and inviting single set with just the right note of formality, giving grandiosity to the cozy, inner sanctum of the great playwright. Linda Muth’s costumes reflect the patrician entitlement and leisure of Sidney Bruhl’s life and world. Deathtrap is old-fashioned, even quaint. Its genre of passion and instinct—the murder mystery—seems to have been supplanted in popularity by the comparatively demure and rational police procedural, and its themes of greed and envy, though timeless, look almost touchingly naïve in our Enron age.

Sankey gives Deathtrap its reality, and Charlson gives it its pace: The director keeps it humming along though never punishingly brisk, never forced. The plot’s twists and bends reveal themselves artfully, and the pace generously keeps the audience abreast, so that we don’t lag behind, but neither can we see what’s up ahead. Charlson has evidently worked on surprise, intimacy’s accomplice in suspense material. The surprises of the play, which at a certain point come fast and furious, definitely startle the heart, injecting the audience with a theatrical dose of fear and thrill.

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