Dundee’s Rep brings Levin’s gripping thriller to life with well-executed drama and suspense leaving you wishing that it was more than just two acts. Deathtrap holds the record for the longest-running comedy thriller on Broadway; Ira Levin’s play uses simplicity of character and setting to create a compelling and unexpected piece of work.
Described as “a comedic thriller in two acts”, the performance opens in the study of struggling playwright Sidney Bruhl (Lewis Howden) and his wife Myra (Emily Winter) as Bruhl strives to come up with ideas for a new project. It has been several years since his last success when Bruhl receives a manuscript written by a young man who once attended one of his seminars. The play, also called ‘Deathtrap’ with the same structure, set and characters, is brilliant, and Bruhl is sure it will be a hit. The young playwright, Clifford Anderson, (Tom England) wants to discusss it with Bruhl and proposes visiting him. Bruhl jokes with his wife about how easy it would be to kill Anderson and steal his work. What later unfolds is a series of clever and shocking moments.
The strong performances by the cast members make the audience forget that there are only five characters in the play. Every actor has a strong presence on stage – from Winter’s Myra who becomes hysterical when things go wrong, to the wonderful comedic timing of Irene Macdougall as psychic Helga ten Dorp. The lead role of Bruhl is played with sharpness by Howden, highlighting the character’s keen wit.
By far the most enjoyable aspect of Deathtrap is how it self-references its own structure and story. Often the characters will have monologues explaining or predicting the events of the play, only to subvert the audience’s expectations as to how they transpire. Levin toys with the audience and its knowledge of what has happened, or will happen, to terrific effect. When art is this self-aware and meta-dramatic , there can be a danger of over-reliance on the device and trying to be too clever with it. However, Deathtrap handles itself well and even employs its knowing mockery as part of its comedy, coming close to breaking the fourth-wall.
Storytelling and complex plots such as this can be a victim of their own success. Once the first twist is unveiled then it is difficult to meet the audience’s expectations and shock them again. Deathtrap, for my praises, suffers from this. The second act of the play doesn’t quite match the quality of the first and leaves you guessing what the next shock might be. The plot-twists in the second act lose some of the drama that precedes it.
The production team is also to be commended on its unique and stylish set design from the cool, grey bookcase on stage right, to the blood red steps that foreshadow death, concealed by a set of large full-length sliding doors. At moments of suspense, the lighting of the set changes to evoke a sinister mood as the characters conspire against each other.
With one set and five characters, Levin’s award-winning thriller comes to Dundee’s Rep Theatre and kills it. Deathtrap is a funny, shocking and unforgettable piece that constantly references itself as a play-within-a-play, without the risk of becoming too convoluted.
Hamzah M. Hussain