Ira Levin, within the text of his intricate and frequently self-referring thriller, “Deathtrap,” has a character look up from a script and pronounce it “foolproof,” so well-constructed even a “smart director” can’t ruin it. Oh, Levin’s prophetic soul!
As if in a scientific experiment, his sardonic line is proven by Annika Bennett’s production of “Deathtrap” for Princeton Summer Theater.
Bennett understands the mechanics of theater and the play — a plot twisting thriller that opens with a faltering star playwright musing murdering his gifted student in order to steal his guarantee hit play. Physically, her staging makes sense. Characters are in the right positions when crucial incidents occur. Sequences with impact receive their dramatic due (if not the full intensity they could muster). Levin’s plot twists are clear and impress with cleverness and dexterity. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set denotes the tone and taste of a Connecticut farmhouse where a playwright and his wife live, props, pretensions, and all.
Enough works for “Deathtrap” to survive and provide PST audiences a good time.
Bennett’s production is not marred by her misunderstanding Levin’s intentions or absence of tight traffic control, but by a juvenile approach to the material and characterization that shows no acquaintance with the time in which “Deathtrap” is set (1979, as revealed by the dial telephones, manual typewriters, and the amount of money that can be made by a hit play), or the people who populate it.
“Deathtrap,” as Levin says among those self-references, has comic moments, mostly witty lines and naughtily sophisticated attitudes incorporated into Levin’s general scheme, but it is primarily a thriller with characters who know their world and fit comfortably within it.
Sidney Bruhl (C. Luke Soucy) is a successful playwright whose wit is brittle in keeping with him being an integral and respected member of New York literary society. He needs an easy, contemporary confidence and sophisticated air of one who has made it in a tough, ruthless profession (even as he copes with writer’s block and financial woes).
Bruhl is not Oscar Wilde. Or even Noel Coward. “Deathtrap” has nothing to do with either of those playwrights or their personal or literary styles. Yet Wilde is the one who comes to mind when Bruhl makes his entrance wearing a red velvet robe and ostentatiously pleated white shirt with a bow at the neck. The image is exacerbated when Soucy speaks and behaves as if he’s channeling Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff.
This conceit, misguided to begin with, escalates with the appearance of one of Bruhl’s playwriting students, Clifford Anderson (Dylan Blau Edelstein), a prodigy/protege who submits a mystery Bruhl would kill to have written. He is also given to poet’s blouses and bright scarves tied with exaggerated flourish, and, yes, a bow.
These glitches don’t take away from “Deathtrap’s” story, but they distract and seem ludicrous because they deny the stage the presence of characters who have the sensibility to play out Levin’s designs and replaces them with self-conscious caricatures who carry on like petulant children and lack the chic, urbane New York polish of “Deathtrap’s” time and place (in fairness, not stated in the PST program). They create an extra layer that diminishes more than it enhances.
Jules Peiperl’s costumes are a constant source of horror, even more questionable than the red nail polish on Bruhl.
Peiperl is generous to “Deathtrap’s” woman characters, Myra Bruhl (Kathryn Anne Marie) and a world-renowned psychic, Helga Ten Dorp (the blessedly on-pitch Abby Melick), dressing them in character and avoiding the outlandish excesses they (Peiperl, non-binary, prefers this pronoun) foist on the men.
Peiperl could have made Bruhl individualistically elegant via a smoking jacket and foulard, but they went overboard with outfits that harken mostly to Peiperl’s imagination or the Wilde canon.
Hats are preposterous. Each man appears in some showy headpiece that makes no sense to the character or anything he wears. A lawyer (Justin Ramos) arrives from New York in a stovepipe chapeau that screams “Alice in Wonderland” souvenir shop. Its ridiculousness is compounded by it being tan when the lawyer is clad totally in black, except for a printed scarf tied in a fashion the conservative attorney would never choose.
Clifford dons a Tom Sawyerish straw hat at first entrance (worse even than his high-hemmed pants) and a crushed black fedora later, both absurd.
That’s the point. “Deathtrap” is convoluted and tricky, but it is not absurd. Logic and its overuse, perhaps to the point of psychosis, are at its core. It doesn’t need embellishment in its tone, dress, or characterization. No benefits derive as Bennett and company apply their “improvements.” Rather, a well-oiled, slickly honed piece is junked up with hokey antics that defy need or reason. It’s as if Bennett didn’t trust “Deathtrap.”
Luckily — miraculously — Levin’s plot and Bennett’s need to adhere strictly with some of it prevail, and the excesses annoy and confuse but don’t fatally damage.
One sadness is the sense Bennett’s cast could have done a creditable “Deathtrap” if unhampered by ruffles and flourishes.
Soucy has undeniable stage presence, a commanding voice, and a knack for finding the humor within his lines. He is the right leading man and looks able to convert his Wildean interpretation to a more standard mode. One wishes he had the chance.
Melick is fulsomely comic as Helga, but for once, the overdoing works. Antic behavior fits Melick’s character, and Melick skillfully foreshadows upcoming events and demonstrates the verity of Helga’s gifts.
Edelstein almost pulls off Bennett’s overkill. His energy is right for Cliff. Some subtlety might help. Marie and Ramos are appropriately basic.
Deathtrap, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Through Sunday, July 21, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. $29.50. 732-997-0205 or www.princetonsummertheater.org