Deathtrap at the Jungle Theater

Cheryl Willis and Steve Hendrickson in Deathtrap.  Photo by Michal Daniel.

Cheryl Willis and Steve Hendrickson in Deathtrap. Photo by Michal Daniel.

“Do you have any idea how much,” Sidney Bruhl rhapsodizes in Deathtrap (at the Jungle, through May 19), “a play like that is worth in today’s market?  Two million dollars!”

Is it really possible?  That a combination of glib theatrics, rapier-thin characters, twisty thrilleresque plotting and nasty comedy could transform an innocent dramatist into an overnight millionaire, the occupier of an 18th century mansion in Connecticut, someone who can get David Merrick and Joe Papp on the phone in a manner of minutes?

I believe it could happen.  After all, Ira Levin‘s glib, nasty and deliciously contrived Deathtrap ran on Broadway for 1,809 performances (more than 4 years), was adapted into a profitable feature film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, and has received hundreds and possibly thousands of productions around the planet.  Gosh.  It’s enough to give a writer like me, struggling to keep body and soul together, hope.

Here’s the sitch: playwright Bruhl, owner of a grand success and a series of flops has encountered a young and gifted creator of commercial thrillers, Clifford Anderson.  He invites Anderson to his isolated house to “work on the play.”  It’s only a coincidence, he claims, that he’s made sure no one has seen him collect Anderson at the train depot, that Anderson has brought the only copy of the play.  And we believe him, right up until he…

Silly and contrived?  Sure, and if you’re allergic to material like this, well, Deathtrap may not be your cup o’ tea.  Fun?  You bet, and Levin (who died in 2007) has cunningly added a handsome dollop of Pirandellian sophistication to the mix, just to keep us smarmy 21st century types content.

Also, were you to skip Deathtrap you’d miss some delightful acting.  Steve Hendrickson leads the pack as Sidney Bruhl.  Thin, soft-spoken, arch, Hendrickson-as-Bruhl hides his bitterness and omnivorous ambition perfectly.  When it erupts, it takes us aback – and makes us nod with recognition.  Hendrickson gives an understated and  masterful performance.

Similarly effective is Michael Booth as the young and syrupy sweet, stars-in-his-eyes, desiccated-corpses-buried-in-his-basement Clifford Anderson.  We really believe he’s working on a moving drama set in a welfare office, that is, until he…

The remarkable Claudia Wilkens has an indecent amount of fun with the role of the psychic Helga ten Dorp (and costumer Kathy Kohl dresses her brilliantly).  As the lawyer Porter Milgrom Terry Hempleman utterly convinces in a horn rimmed, buttoned down way.  We completely trust the two of them until, in the final scene, they…

Then there is the marvelous Cheryl Willis who delights as the frowzy and frumpy, long-suffering but nevertheless assertive Myra Bruhl.  She keeps her Sidney well-reined-in, until she…

As always, the design thrills.  Director/set designer Bain Boehlke gives us plenty to look at it during those sections (and there are a few) when not much is happening.

Another jewel at the Jungle.  My firm advice: don’t prepare.  Don’t read Deathtrap (and if you’ve seen it before, a real possibility, don’t remember it).  Don’t watch the movie.  Just let Levin’s literate silliness wash over (and thrill) you.

Next up at the Jungle: the hootingly funny musical Urinetown, opening June 7).

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

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