Theater Review: DEATHTRAP (International City Theatre in Long Beach)

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by Marc Wheeler on October 26, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


Without spoiling, there’s only so much I can say about Deathtrap. Written by Ira Levin, this 1978 Tony-nominated play is an imperfect, though relatively delightful thriller now getting an even more imperfect, though relatively delightful production at International City Theatre in Long Beach. Best known for Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Levin mixes humor into the play’s suspense, helping it, at four years running, to become Broadway’s longest-running comedy-thriller. It also got a 1982 film adaptation starring Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Reeve. Directed by Jamie Torcellini on the Beverly O’Neill Theatre stage, this Deathtrap offers audiences the thrills and chills they’re undoubtedly expecting, but ends up caught in its own trap.

Michelle Holmes, Geoffrey Lower and Jill Remez

The year is 1978. Sidney Bruhl is a playwright known for his “bump in the night” Broadway hits. Except, it’s been awhile since he’s had one and he’s getting desperate. As luck would have it, a sure smasher has found its way to his New England country home. “Deathtrap” is its name—a title as perfect as the play itself. The script, Sidney tells his wife Myra, is written by one Clifford Andersen, a young, aspiring playwright and recent student of Sidney’s who’s seeking professional feedback. Perhaps if Sidney could invite Clifford over to, you know, “discuss his manuscript,” maybe Sidney could put an end to his professional dry spell by putting an end to … well, you know. That a murder-mystery writer would be contemplating an act this meta is a devilish kind of delicious. But in all seriousness, it worries Myra about her husband: would he?!

Jill Remez and Geoffrey Lower

Like the self-referential play-within-a-play it describes, Deathtrap is a one-set, five-character thriller. Spring-loaded with surprises, it offers audiences the kind of gasps that are usually reserved for the movies. Just don’t look too close. In a play with as many plot-twists and layers as this, character motivation—the whydunit—is the gel that holds it all together. In that department, Levin has been giving theatermakers a tall order since Deathtrap debuted 45 years ago. Still, Torcellini and his five actors have no choice but to make it work; and that’s where this ICT production falters.

Coby Rogers and Geoffrey Lower

I wish I could sing higher praises, but there isn’t an actor here who nails it. While some performances get by, sorta, based on what we know at the time, they don’t hold up under closer scrutiny (i.e. the light of subsequent revelations). Geoffrey Lower is decent, but too overstated as the playwright Sidney, whereas Jill Remez as his wife Myra is more grounded. As budding writer, Clifford, Coby Rogers eschews his character’s complexities by walking quietly down a neutral center—a choice which, disappointingly, never fully captivates. Patrick Vest is serviceable in the role of lawyer, although his stage time is minimal. The greatest outlier is Michelle Holmes as the psychic neighbor (of course there’s a psychic neighbor!), Helga ten Dorp. While she’s undoubtedly the play’s comic relief, her performance—with an accent as curious as her tracksuit—borders on caricature.

Patrick Vest and Geoffrey Lower

When it comes to thrills, however, Deathtrap delivers. I’m a sucker for plays that startle and this one got me—in the first half, that is. Act I, like the first act of Lapine and Sondheim’s Into the Woods, could almost be a short play unto itself. Post-intermission gets duller, more outlandish, and totters toward an ending that I can’t imagine has satisfied many. Still, after hearing about Deathtrap for ages, and (thankfully!) never having it spoiled for me, I’m glad I got to see it. While the performances of this production left me wanting, its technical aspects pop.

Michelle Holmes

It doesn’t hurt that International City Theatre, from its roomy stage to its opulent lobby, is a treat to visit. Fred Kinney’s large-scale set full of nerve-jarring weaponry (Patty and Gordon Briles, resident property designers) is a sight to behold. (Note: perhaps I was too in the moment to notice, but I heard one patron saying later how uneasy they felt when they found themselves in said weaponry’s crosshairs; to which I’ll say: actors, be careful where you’re pointin’ that thang.) Crystal R. Shomph’s lighting and Dave Mickey’s sound design make for one helluva dark-and-stormy night. And while the aforementioned tracksuit bounced me out, Kimberly DeShazo’s period costumes, overall, are a nice throwback to the late-70s.

Michelle Holmes and Patrick Vest

Like its predecessors Sleuth, The Mousetrap, and Dial M for Murder, Deathtrap has its knives on the prize. And while the play itself has its flaws, I wish this production was more internally cohesive. As a chill-seeker, however, especially with Halloween just around the corner, I’m going to advocate for the best of this play instead of witnessing too much for the prosecution. Whether through a good jump-scare or internal confusion, it might just make you scream.

photos by Kayte Deimoa

International City Theatre at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre
Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, 330 East Seaside Way
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on November 5, 2023
for tickets, call 562.436.4610 or visit ICT

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