Chicago Theatre Review
Playwrighting Can Be Murder
Deathtrap – Citadel Theatre
Sidney Bruhl is a once successful, middle-aged playwright who used to be the toast of Broadway. Specializing in mysteries and thrillers, Bruhl has been suffering from writer’s block for the past several years, spending his time teaching seminars and workshops to hopeful younger writers while trying to restart his own creative juices. Sidney and his wife Myra live comfortably off her money, residing in the country in a stylishly remodeled barn. The house has been redecorated with antiques, theatrical posters and a large array of weapons and torture devices that figured prominently in Sidney’s plays.
Suddenly, into Sidney’s lap drops a brilliant new thriller written by Clifford Anderson, one of his recent students. The play is so good that Bruhl wishes he’d written it himself. As he shares his dreams with Myra, she suggests that Sidney call the young man, invite him to their home and perhaps collaborate on the final rewrite. In this way Sidney could enjoy the success of another Broadway hit, help foster the talents of a young, would-be writer and start to feel productive once again. However, when Sidney’s imagination begins to wander Myra begins worrying that her husband may be thinking of doing something rash…like murdering Clifford, stealing his promising script and putting his own name on the title page.
Add to the mix two more characters. Helga ten Dorp, an elderly European psychic renting a neighboring cottage, comes visiting to warn Sidney and Myra of the terrible visions of pain she’s felt emanating from the Bruhl’s home. Later, Sidney’s friend and attorney, Porter Milgrim, arrives to review his client’s financial status and to suggest updating his will. Violence, plot twists and unexpected character developments provide continual surprises for the audience as the story gathers momentum and frantically drives to its final, startling conclusion.
Receiving rave reviews when it opened in 1978, “Deathtrap” played four years on Broadway. A few years later it was adapted into a successful film starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon. For a while it became a regional and community theatre staple, but it’s been years since the Chicago area has seen this play produced. Kudos to Artistic Director Scott Phelps for dusting off this masterwork by Ira Levin, the author of such popular works as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Stepford Wives” and “The Boys From Brazil.” Judging from the gasps, screams and laughter from the opening night audience, a few may vaguely recall seeing the film, but for most of the playgoers this was a brand new thriller. Filled with unpredictable turns of events, surprising character reversals and unexpected humor juxtaposed against brutal violence, audiences making the trek up to Lake Forest will be well rewarded for their efforts.
Actor Pat Murphy has returned to Citadel Theatre, this time in the director’s role. He’s done a fine job of pacing the play and keeping his actors on track. Astute audience members and those familiar with the script will enjoy how Mr. Murphy has subtly focused on clues hidden within the dialogue; newcomers to this play, however, will relish meeting these interesting characters and experiencing this twisted story for the first time. Eric Luchen has done a terrific job of creating a handsome set that will particularly surprise Citadel regulars with its authenticity and inventiveness. Patrick O’Brien and Zoe Mikel Stites have employed their own artistry, adding a delightful soundtrack of harpsichord (plus the obligatory thunder and lightning) and the proper atmospheric illumination and eerie effects so necessary for a mystery. Shawn Quinlan’s costumes are appropriate and help the actors provide a touch more information about their characters.
Chuck Quinn makes a convincing (and conniving) Sidney Bruhl. The actor nicely builds his enthusiasm for securing his young protege’s script. Audiences will feel the man’s desperation to regain his success as a playwright. Elizabeth Rude is natural and relatable as Myra. Caring so much for her husband and his happiness, Ms. Rude’s Myra puts Sidney first in everything she says and does, from the manner in which she fixes his favorite drink to the way she helps him plan how to share in his student’s promising play. As Clifford, Neil Phelps (the son of the Artistic Director) demonstrates that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Talented and earnest, Mr. Phelps brings a refreshing honesty and wholesomeness to his character, which later the actor effectively turns on a dime. Hopefully Neil Phelps will be seen in many more area productions in the near future.
Life imitates art as Steve Malone, Citadel’s new Managing Director, takes on the role of Porter Milgrim, Sidney’s attorney and confidant. A natural and energetic actor, Mr. Malone makes an excellent impression in his Citadel debut as a cautious, caring man who only wants the best for his friend. Unfortunately Tehilla Newman doesn’t fare quite as well. The actress plays Helga ten Dorp more as a caricature than as a real person. So over the top as to be unbelievable, Ms. Newman’s studied, carefully planned gestures, bizarre mannerisms and inconsistent dialect is out of sync with the other performers. The result is disappointing when a simpler, more grounded, uncontrived performance would’ve worked so much better. Helga is certainly a comical character but her humor shouldn’t be forced; it should flow naturally from the lady’s eccentricity.
Citadel’s 12th season is off to a fine start with this much-welcome revival of one of theatre’s finest comedy-mysteries. Ira Levin is well-represented in Pat Murphy’s polished production. It’s a well-directed and finely produced entertainment that features a number of talented new area actors. If this latest offering is any indication of what’s to come, audiences will be leaving the theatre highly anticipating the exciting new season that lies ahead.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 5-October 5 by Citadel Theatre Company, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-735-8554 or by going to www.citadeltheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.