‘Deathtrap’ shows its age in Cider Mill production

Reviewed by George Basler

Pity poor Sidney Bruhl, the main character in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. After four straight flops, the once successful playwright has become a burnt-out case whose talent has long grown cold and stale.

Alas, based on the Cider Mill Playhouse’s production, which opened this past weekend, the same can be said about Deathtrap itself. While the play may have seemed fresh and shocking when it opened on Broadway in 1978, it has aged badly and now seems as fresh as day-old bread.

The five cast members do the best to bring the comedy/thriller to life, but they can’t disguise the flimsiness of a very contrived plot. Despite some shocks along the way, the play fails to spark any real tension, especially in a long, talky first act.

Deathtrap focuses on the has-been Bruhl, who has become cynical and bitter after his string of failures. When a former student — “one of the twerps” in a summer class, as he acerbically puts it — contacts him with a play that is a sure-fire hit, Bruhl seems ready to bump him off and steal his work. Or does he?

Suffice to say, plot twists galore follow as do inside jokes and satiric jabs at the whole thriller concept.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with mixing comedy and tension. Alfred Hitchcock did it beautifully in several of his films.  By comparison, Deathtrap falls flat. The shocks, when they come, seem quaint, even where co-directors Carol Hanscom and Tom Kremer, who also act in the play, pump up the gore.

In fact, the first act seems to be off in terms of timing, with a distinct lack of chemistry among the actors.

The second act plays better when Kremer, as Bruhl, and Matt Van Vorst, who plays the young playwright, are on the stage by themselves for a long period of time. The two work well together, and their interplay is by far the best thing in the play.

Kremer does a good job catching Bruhl’s arrogance and cynicism. The character’s snide comments supply most of the play’s humor, and some are quite funny. Van Vorst also does a good job as the seemingly callow young playwright, who turns out to be far more cold-blooded and calculating than one would expect.

Less successful are the female characters. Maria Manzano-Johnson is suitably agitated as Bruhl’s wife but never catches the character’s neuroses and fragility.

The second female character, a semi-wacky psychic named Helga ten Drop, is supposed to provide comic relief. But the role is too often grating and annoying. Hanscom does her level best with the hammy part, but the character is irredeemable.

Mention should be made of Donald Blake, a retired Binghamton University administrator, who is making his Cider Mill debut in the small role of Bruhl’s attorney. Blake is convincingly natural in the role, which turns out to be a pivotal one in the play.

Craig Saeger’s set design and lighting are first-rate, and I must say Nicolas Coccaro choreographs a great fight in the second act.

But, at best, Cider Mill’s Deathtrap is mildly diverting. At its worst, it’s just a very old and tired chestnut of a play.

IF YOU GO: Deathtrap will run through April 6 at the Cider Mill Playhouse2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Performances are 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $28-$32. Call 748-7363, or visit the box office from noon to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and until curtain time on performance days. You also can buy tickets online at www.cidermillplayhouse.org.

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