Technicolor Trap

Ross Valley Players update a classic thriller

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Bryce Smith (center) gets in over his head when Amber Collins Crane and Gregory Crane welcome him into a potential ‘Deathtrap.’ Credit: Robin Jackson

Mysteries and thrillers present interesting challenges for critics. We want to give audiences enough of an idea of the plot to pique their interest without giving away any of the twists, turns and surprises audiences should discover for themselves. Well, here goes.

Playwright Sidney Bruhl, once a successful writer of theatrical thrillers, is tired of living off dwindling royalties from long-ago hits, the occasional college seminar and the largesse of his wealthy wife, Myra. An unsolicited manuscript from one Clifford Anderson, an attendee of one of Sidney’s writing seminars, arrives at his Westport, Conn., home and sets his mind a-whirling. He invites Clifford up to discuss a possible collaboration, but has Sidney’s mind really turned to . . . murder?

That’s the setup of Ira Levin’s Broadway record-setting comedy-thriller Deathtrap, the latest production from the Ross Valley Players, now running through Feb. 17. Levin, the author of such successful thrillers as Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, had his greatest theatrical success with this darkly comedic take on the creative process, the desire for success and how some people just might be willing to kill for it.

Originally written and set in the late 1970s, director Chloe Bronzan has opted to set this production in the early ’60s with, according to her director’s notes, a “technicolor Hitchcock theme” in mind. Her choices are inconsistent, though, leading to a few anachronisms. She replaces references to late night TV host Johnny Carson with his predecessor Jack Paar, but leaves in references to Sleuth, a play not written until 1970. Lest you think I’m being too picky, Levin’s script is chock-full of inside-theater references, so it’s been written with the knowledgeable theatergoer in mind.

Husband-and-wife team Amber and Gregory Crane play husband and wife Sydney and Myra Bruhl, with Bay Area newcomer Bryce Smith essaying the young playwright whose script Sydney covets. They all work well together, particularly in the execution of some excellent fight choreography (by Richard Squeri), which offsets some of the director’s questionable blocking choices that occasionally give the show an odd look. Technical and script issues aside, credit all the artists for a moment that generated the loudest audience scream I’ve heard in a theater in some time.

There’s a reason Deathtrap holds the record as Broadway’s longest running comedy-thriller. It’s a fun show and, overall, the Ross Valley Players have a bloody good time with it.

 

‘Deathtrap’ runs Thursday–Sunday through Feb. 17 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Times vary. $12–$27. 415.883.4498. rossvalleyplayers.com.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for such a sharp and thoughtful review, Harry. Just to clarify: We made a conscious choice not to change the reference to Sleuth. We wanted to keep the playwright’s words in tact, adjusting the Johnny Carson reference (Merve Griffin in some drafts of the script) only because we thought the “majority” of audience members might remember the timeline of these talk show hosts to the point of distraction, more so than they would remember the year a play was published.

    We value the script, as written, and were not trying to backdate the story in a literal sense so much as we wanted to, from a design perspective, give it the overall “feel” of a technicolor Hitchcock film, most of which took place in the early 1960s. We also made this choice with blocking, often going for more stylized, subliminal and filmic movement choices
    over realism. I’ll be the first to admit it doesn’t work 100% of the time, but I am pleased with the overall emotional reality it helped create. (For example: We made a point of Helga never touching anything or anyone in the room, until the end of the play, when she falls into the “trap” herself!)

    All the Best,

    Chloe Bronzan
    Director of Deathtrap

  2. Harry – I saw this play (and enjoyed it) before I saw your review. I agree that the cast works well together – I thought Bryce Smith (no relation) was the standout. But I’m intrigued by your comment about the director’s “questionable blocking choices giving the show an odd look.” I plan to go see it again (I find I often see things I missed the first time if I go a second) and would love to have your insights as to what should have been different.
    Thanks!!

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