Los Angeles Theater Review: DEATHTRAP (The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre)

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Review: DEATHTRAP (The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on April 3, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


As evidenced by his astoundingly beautiful production of Ira Levin’s 1978 comedy-thriller Deathtrap, Jon Imperato is a paradigm of producing and most assuredly knows how to take a tiny, black box theater and transform it into a Broadway-caliber showcase of technical and directorial talent; the design team alone is reason enough to recommend this outing.

However, while the casting in this play is flawless, and each actor the perfect type for their role, four of the five performers are merely serviceable (the fifth is outstanding). Now understand, the performers are exceptionally cast, appearing and sounding like they bounded from the pages of Mr. Levin’s script, but the craft—the acting as art—is, shall we say, fine. But when you are in a room so tiny that the uncomfortable seats (bring chair pads—I’m not kidding) are actually placed on the set, every little choice and impulse must be impeccable, which they are not.

Still, Levin’s homage to stage thrillers of antiquity (Dial “M” for Murder, Witness for the Prosecution, Sleuth) remains one of the cleverest and out-and-out fun plays of all time. In this production, the play—along with the set, a strapping actor, and the staging—is definitely the thing. Especially for those who have never seen it before, the labyrinthine mystery is a classic hoot, and less discerning spectators will be able to forgive the presentational acting and fasten their seat-belts for a page-turning plot of shocking twists and turns—for them, Deathtrap will be a treat, for others, simply diverting, which isn’t such a bad thing.

In the study of a timbered country home in Connecticut, playwright Sidney Bruhl is stuck. Having not written a hit in years, he is financially beholden to Myra, his wife of eleven years. Sidney has just read a play sent to him by Clifford Anderson, a young man who saw Sidney lecturing at a seminar and now wants some advice from the great Mr. Bruhl. Sidney, recognizing the thriller (aptly named Deathtrap) as a potential hit, promptly phones Clifford and invites the neophyte scribe to his home. It is 1978 and mimeographs are just being replaced by Xerox, so when Sidney asks Clifford to bring the only other existing copy of the play, Myra is suspicious of Sidney’s possibly murderous intentions. To say that foul doings ensue is an understatement and woe to the patron who knows any more plot than that.

When the ridiculously handsome and buff Burt Grinstead appears in scene two as the homespun budding playwright Clifford, the swooning spectator may not even care if the guy can act. But his performance is the surprise of the night: unassuming yet duplicitous, sexy yet dangerous, charming and unpredictable, this is one of the best fits of actor and role seen this year. And if you’re wondering why Deathtrap should appear amongst the gay-themed presentations at the Gay & Lesbian Center, this beefcake will make you wonder no more. Would that I could give away why I recommend you see his…performance, but suffice it to say that Mr. Grinstead may cause the run to extend.

The dialogue for the Bruhl’s next door neighbor, the meddling psychic Helga Ten Dorp, contains some of the funniest lines ever written for the stage, and those who have never seen Deathtrap before will be titillated, but whether Elizabeth Herron is conscious of it or not, she reads her lines as if she knows they are funny—and the deathtrap of comedy is playing for laughs, not character. Certainly, she is pleasant enough to watch, but veers dangerously close to farce. Herron is a fabulous actress, and this is one performance that could have easily been aided by some directorial notes (ditto to Stephen Mendillo, who needed to do more than just fit the role of Bruhl’s lawyer Porter Milgrim).

Cynthia Gravinese plays Myra Bruhl, easily the most difficult role in the play; the suspicious, panic-stricken, pill-popping, weak-hearted wife is a jumble of strong emotions contained in a brittle exterior. Ms. Gravinese is definitely the poster child for the role, physically embodying the high-strung, awkward country wife perfectly. But this is a role where hitting the right notes is simply not enough, and the close proximity of the audience—literally two feet away—magnifies that she is playing anxiety, not being anxiety. (For theater buffs: Marian Seldes won a 1979 Tony for the role, appearing in every one of the 1,809 Broadway performances, earning her a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as “most durable actress”).

Brian Foyster presented the demeanor of the pedantic British playwright Sidney Bruhl soundly, but he also came off as contrived and self-conscious. While the actor grew on me in the second act, there was hesitancy in dialect and movement. To be fair, the actor must contend with weapons, stage combat and his character’s multiple layers of deception, so it is hoped that time will enrich his performance.

Erring on the side of a recommendation, any theater aficionado must attend this show to experience Joel Daavid’s set design in person. The wooded walls, the fieldstone fireplace, and the meticulousness of antique weapons and furniture (along with sundry 1978 artifacts) make this the set to beat as the best of the year. The fact that Daavid fit what should be a very large study into this tiny space only added to the claustrophobia of the piece. It truly is a work of art and it breaks my heart that it will have to be struck at run’s end. Paula Higgins’ costume design is equally successful and deserving of praise.

The most suspenseful moments of the night come from Luke Moyer’s thrillingly atmospheric lighting and the sound design of Ken Sawyer (who also directed), which added eerie Hitchcockian music to the requisite thunder and wind. Sawyer’s staging is constantly intriguing and one of the reasons, along with Edgar Landa’s fight direction, that the whodunit clips along as well as it does. As with The Woman in Black at the Road Theatre, Sawyer proves that he is a master with spooky theatrics.

But his actors? The breathtakingly gorgeous production of Deathtrap actually fuels the expectations that the acting will be as detailed as the set. Of the four productions I have seen, including Broadway, this is definitely the sexiest version and elucidates what was wrong in the casting of the 1982 film (Dyan Cannon was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Supporting Actress” of the year). Sawyer’s Deathtrap is mildly amusing, occasionally exciting, but falls short of thrilling at the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, where Artistic Director Imperato also presented The Sonneteer, a promising play which was equally hampered by uneven performances.

It is unclear at times whether Imperato and the keen-eyed Sawyer are responsible for the acting in Deathtrap or if it is the actors themselves. I am suspicious that Sawyer is mostly responsible: a director has time constraints in rehearsals, as he must spend what precious time is left on the technical aspects, not the acting. Yet, the phenomenon of serviceable acting on L.A. stages is ubiquitous, where it is not in New York and Chicago. Is it that L.A. actors are incapable of switching from cinematic acting to stage acting? Is it a lack of training? Who knows?

In the long run, while I was never bored, it was the astonishing set and the agonizing seats that were the true Deathtrap’s of the evening.

photos by Ken Sawyer, Luke Moyer and Zackry Barclift

The Los Angeles LGBT Center and Sixth Avenue
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the L.A. LGBT Center
The Village at Ed Gould Plaza; 1125 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 7
ends on May 6, 2012
for tickets, call 323-860-7300 or visit LA Gay Center

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jess Kalinowsky April 4, 2012 at 8:39 pm

I have traveled the world, many times. I have attended theatre in Toronto, New York. London, Houston, Los Angeles and many more places. The cast in this show did a wonderful job for a tiny theatre. They were all well prepared and very believable. I strongly urge to see this play before it’s short run is over. Acting, staging, everything was great.


Derrick Brown May 15, 2012 at 1:39 am

I must say, I don’t really agree. In a town that so often forgets about live theater, it’s such a pleasant surprise when a production makes an impression. Deathtrap made such an impression on me, in fact, that I wrote to the producer the next day:

“I asked… for your email, as I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed Deathtrap. What an absolutely phenomenal show. Suspenseful. Sensual. Funny. Frightening. Clever. Thoroughly engaging and entertaining. It truly felt like an exhilarating rollercoaster ride, and I wanted to get right back in line to ride it again. Wonderful performances, flawless direction, stellar sound design, and that set….. fantastic. I’ve seen Mr. Daavid’s work in the past, and he never disappoints. And I’m so in love with your cast, I can barely stand it. Such marvelous talent. I look forward to seeing much more of these actors in the months and years to come.

“As we were leaving the theatre, I told [my friend] that this is one of those productions that comes along once in a blue moon, and reawakens one’s interest in and love for live theater. You should be incredibly proud.

“I look forward to seeing Deathtrap again, as I’ve promised to take my friend, who is visiting from Australia, to see it… And I’ve been telling all my friends about it, so I might even get a third show in before you close! 🙂 Thank you so much for a wonderful production… and a wonderful experience.

“Best wishes and much admiration…”


Leave a Comment