Shows, Van Wert Civic Theatre

Review: Deathtrap

By P.S. Luhn

Last night I got a chance to see a play by an acknowledged master of the thriller. The following plays, by award winning author Ira Levin were all adapted into successful films:  Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil and The Stepford Wives.  They are all considered “classics”.

Another in the long list of achievements from Mr. Levin, is a two act comedy/thriller, Deathtrap. Van Wert Civic Theatre is currently presenting this tense drama, a five-character, one-set script. The gist of the plot of Deathtrap, is that a play, (by the same name) written by a young man, is the manuscript worthy of killing, or being killed trying to possess.

At the beginning a down-on-his-luck-but-fortunately-married-to-a-rich-woman, Sidney Bruhl, has a script that has been sent to him by a former attendee of one of his writing seminars. The young man, Clifford Anderson, has sent Bruhl the first draft of a play he has written. Bruhl tells his wife, Myra, that the script is a guaranteed winner. He ponders, aloud, whether he should kill Anderson and steal the script.

Bruhl is as devious as they come, and quietly, just as bloodthirsty. We are soon to discover that Anderson is just as devious, if not as bloodthirsty. The moment he and Sidney are united, on stage, the whole plot suddenly has more twists than a Bavarian pretzel. This is the thing about thrillers: the playwright leads his audience down a winding path. He passes them the idea that they’re going one way, sells them on it, then takes the path in a disturbingly different direction. Every time we think we’ve got it, we find out we most certainly do not. This takes careful plot development to assure the thriller’s success. As you might imagine not many writers have this gift. This simple statement of fact helps us buy into the delight the desperate Sidney radiates when presented with an already-perfect script.

Stan Lippi is an actor I have never before seen. His Sidney is very smooth, almost
nonchalant. This smoothness was not something I had expected, but the ease with which Lippi/Sidney manipulates his wife and young Anderson, grew on me. By the second act, we have classified him as an extreme scoundrel. We can’t wait to see him foiled. Lippi makes the smooth-talker work.

An actress with which I have not been familiar, Kelly Smith, has been chosen to play the hapless wife of Sidney. She gives us the passionate, involved wife, Myra, who begins to have doubts about her husband. She would do anything for him, except be an accomplice to murder. Smith counters Lippi’s ease with her own un-ease. As she keeps interrupting his seductive murder scenario with Anderson, I wanted to shout at her to shut up or leave. I was furious with her. Great job!

The third member of the starring triumvirate, Clifford Anderson, is portrayed by an actor with whom I am relatively familiar. Josh Campbell is an actor that I have watched improve every time out. Clifford is a complicated and difficult character to get right. His straight-faced innocence must convince the audience that he has no “plan”; no hidden agenda. Campbell succeeds at this in nearly every moment of the story. We can never decide whether to root for him, or boo him. Good writing. Good acting.

There are two more characters in this five-character play. In this hold-your-breath drama, there is one person who does not worry us. Sidney’s lawyer friend, Porter Milgrim is a Casper Milquetoast, a man bland and clueless, who turns out to be someone slightly more, maybe less, than we are first given to believe. Ed Eichler, long time VWCT veteran, always solid, is the equally bland, yet horribly flawed individual.  More surprises for the audience, easily shared by Mr. Eichler.

Waaaaay over-the-top, as the “who-woulda-guessed” psychic, is Amy McConn. McConn gives the wacky European savant, Helga ten Dorp, all the manic, frenetic, flightiness that Levin intended. And quite possibly a bit more. Helga is comedy relief in this show, and McConn is certainly loving it.

I saw this play thirty years ago in Lima, with a much-less-practiced eye and ear. As I watched this time, I decided I would not have called this a comedy/thriller. I was not as impressed with Mr. Levin’s humor, as I was with his dark overtones. I would classify this more accurately as Drama/Thriller (with comedic interjections.) In the end, though, first time director Matt Krol has truly honored the core and the ebb and flow of Levin’s work. It was a fun show to see.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the set. Usually I am far more interested in words and ideas than the set; I don’t want to have to notice it at all. But I must tell you that this creation was one of the better acting spaces I have seen at VWCT. And I have directed and acted on some fine ones! This one was everything I would have anticipated, from the look of it, to the creative use of the entire stage, to how well decorated, painted and dressed it was . A fine achievement by set designers Chad Kraner and Matt Krol, and set construction artists, Kraner, Keith Allen, and Josh Campbell. Well done!

You may wish to come check out my thoughts.  Help yourself to some tense action. You’ll get to understand something about script writing, and something about the underbelly of human emotion. Get your tickets by calling the VWCT box office.

Photo of Kelly Smith, Josh Campbell, and Stan Lippi on stage in the play.
Kelly Smith, Josh Campbell, and Stan Lippi appear onstage in Deathtrap.