Ira Levin constructs a taut thriller that foreshadows all of its plot twists by mixing the reality of what happens to actual characters with ideas two playwrights share as they construe the perfect murder.
The trouble is, being playwrights, one of the conspirators cannot resist turning real-life into a play he calls “Deathtrap,” and each scribe is astute enough at writing mysteries to anticipate the other’s moves in a cat-and-mouse game in which cleverness counters cleverness until someone is outsmarted. An air-tight crime becomes the occasion for suspicion, jealousy, and strategy that converts perfection into deadly mayhem.
Levin craftily finds a double use for every element of “Deathtrap.” Realizing the playwright’s playfulness is part of the audience’s delight and makes “Deathtrap” as comic as it in intense. The inclusion of a famous Dutch psychic, Helga Ten Dorp, adds to the hilarity and ominousness of the show.
Evan Cabnet’s production of “Deathtrap” for Bucks County Playhouse captures the urbanity and gamesmanship of Levin’s play but strangely misses on the tenser, edge-of-your seat suspense that engenders shock and horror. Laughter is given dominion over thrills.
Cabnet tips his hand too much while staging sequences that depend on timing and surprise. Levin trains his audience to be as savvy as his playwrights about what to expect, so a director of “Deathtrap” is challenged to make the known and expected particularly astonishing. Cabnet spoils scenes that should elicit gasps by allowing characters’ actions, more than Levin’s script or Ten Dorp’s prophesies, to indicate when the gruesome or savage is going to occur. One character appears to look for a henchman’s entrance, subtracting from a surprise that should shock mightily. By-the-number blocking cues a set-up that should spring from nowhere and be more frightening. The speed of a crucial sequence minimizes its effect. Only the first instance of assault registers with the quickness and intensity to make it shocking.
Lack of suspense takes away from “Deathtrap’s” total effect at Bucks, yet it does not prevent Cabnet’s production from scoring points as a drawing room comedy.
Saxon Palmer establishes the wit and sophistication of lead character, Sidney Bruhl, from his first utterance when Palmer lets you hear Sidney’s knack for droll sarcasm and witness his almost childish envy of a student who has written a play better than most of his.
Palmer’s deadpan delivery of Sidney’s juiciest zingers is constantly entertaining. He endows Sidney with logic and clarity that outshines anyone else’s, even Helga’s, but that cannot keep him from getting embroiled in a dilemma he cannot control.
Levin is generous with comic retorts that show each character’s intellect. Cabnet’s cast makes the most of them, Palmer and Mason in particular.
Then there is Levin’s shrewd plot, which Cabnet brings across by having his characters delight in the insight and wit Levin provides them. The Bucks production makes it fun to track when something said in jest or as a suggestion for a mystery comes to fruition in the course of Levin’s script.
One other place Cabnet’s production stints is in affection. “Deathtrap” includes a gay subplot that was mildly daring in 1978, when it was first produced, but it’s standard now. Cabnet seems shy about having his gay characters be demonstrative. They touch occasionally, but they never really embrace or kiss, not even when they have scored a victory and anticipate embarking on a bright future. This bashfulness seems a bit coy in New Hope.
Marsha Mason once again illuminates the Bucks stage as Helga. The ease with which Mason performs shows what puts her on a different level from her castmates. Mason goes beyond caricature to give Helga variety. The ways she finds to say “the pain” are alone a lesson in comic virtuosity. Mason’s looks of revelation are smart and astounding.
Raviv Ullman is spunkily youthful as Sidney’s student. He brings energy and contemporary brattiness to the production. Angela Pierce and David Wohl serve well as Sidney’s wife and best friend.
Anna Louizos’ set is a marvel, true to Levin’s description, and replete with beautifully placed weapons from Sidney’s vast collection. The swords and knives on the hunter green background are perfect. Paloma Young’s costumes also capture the time and the characters, especially her yellow slicker and red rain boots for Helga. Zach Blane’s lighting helps to set moods.
Deathtrap, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, July 13, Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 3 p.m. A performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 2. No performances Friday, July 4. $29 to $59.50. 215-862-2121 or bcptheater.org.