There is a very thin line to walk when a show goes for self-awareness; a fun wink and a tease at the well-known trappings of theater can be enjoyable, or it can get a bit cloying if it goes a little too far. Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” playing now through Sunday, February 24, at Bristol Riverside Theater, plays hopscotch with that line. It’s a beautifully designed and genuinely funny thriller that offers up a good time while aspiring to higher levels of meta-theatricality (or theater within theater) and twists and turns only found in well-oiled machinery — which, admittedly, this play occasionally hits and often misses.
In his gorgeous study (a converted stable in a cavernous Connecticut farmhouse), once-famous murder mystery playwright Sidney Bruhl (Keith Baker) receives a fantastically crafted manuscript from a former student (Robert Ross). Out of a combination of jealousy and a desire for exploitation, Bruhl and his wife (Barbara McCulloh) invite the student down to discuss the play and its future. That’s the first 15 minutes of the play, and this is where my plot synopsis ends.
I am going to deliberately be frustratingly ambiguous about the plot, because all of the fun comes in the form of the reversals and sendups of the mystery genre. The entire back wall of the set is a red velvet clad armory of guns, knives, maces, handcuffs, garrote wire, spears, and a conspicuous crossbow. True to form, if you’ve got a wall full of weapons, some of them are going to get used before the play’s end, and the best parts of “Deathtrap” involve characters brandishing edged and projectile weaponry at each other while threatening mayhem and death.
Roman Tatarowicz’s set is astounding. It is a wonderful monument to the grisliest parts of murder mysteries, and these weapons are well-displayed and used to terrific effect. It would perhaps be a great game of “act I bingo” to make a bet with your date about which artifact is going to be used to murder which cast member in act II.
The arsenal and resulting stage combat are the crown jewels in this production; supporting comedy in the form of a Swedish psychic (Jo Twiss) and bumbling-yet-incisive lawyer (Mordecai Lawner) add a welcome dash of goofy laughs. And while the twists and turns of the plot are interesting –– and in two cases result in satisfying jumps of terror and nervous laughter in the audience, as befits a comedy thriller — the script is a little too smug at points, a little too winking, and there’s a play-within-a-play element that beats the audience over the head about two times too many.
The gags and chills of “Deathtrap” are appreciated and at times clever, but here’s the thing — a clever play is not necessarily a smart play. And this is a gorgeously designed and presented production of a murder mystery that isn’t, on the whole, very smart. The motive behind the first murder is paper-thin, and supporting characters provide ample exposition without actually driving the plot forward.
Most curiously, a same-sex affair between two characters is hinted at and then danced around in a way that does little else but seem like a nod to political correctness that’s almost 30 years out of date. It provides a gaping hole in a motive that would add a great deal to “Deathtrap,” and it’s too bad that the playwright didn’t flesh out the relationship in question.
It is a shame that this is where the fault lies. The actors do an admirable job, the staging is creative, the set and lights and sound are jaw-droppingly rendered and beautiful, but at the end of the day, the writing is found wanting. Levin is able to construct a solid plot with some fiendishly good bits here and there, but he fails to deliver characters and relationships that make us care.
As the bodies inevitably start to pile up, we are not so much concerned with why people are dying, but how. We want to know which weapon is going to pierce this character’s heart, or if an axe or a knife is going to end up in another character’s back. It is the flip side of the audience game I mentioned above, and it’s considerably less fun. We’re almost relieved when these bodies hit the ground, and that’s the wrong kind of enjoyment for a comedy thriller such as this.
Yet the two honestly good scares and twists, combined with the beautiful scenic design, almost make “Deathtrap” worth the price of admission on their own. This is a small-scale and simple murder story, like a slightly funnier version of something you’d find televised on the Lifetime Channel. It has illusions of standing beside actual masterpieces of the genre, such as “Dial M for Murder” and “Sleuth,” but it just does not compare to those fine works of mystery theater. Go in expecting a few laughs and a gasp or two, and you should do just fine.
Deathtrap, Bristol Riversdie Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Through Sunday, February 24. Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. $28 to $45. 215-785-0100 or brtstage.org.