Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: 'Deathtrap'

One-note direction misses the comedy in Ira Levin's comic-thriller.

Review: ‘Deathtrap’

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Robert Ross and Keith Baker in Bristol Riverside Theatre's production of 'Deathtrap'

By Jim Rutter


Ira Levin’s 1978 comic thriller Deathtrap starts with a question: “Could you do it?”

The “it” in this case is murder, plotted by once-successful playwright Sidney Bruhl (Keith Baker). After his last four shows flopped on Broadway, he now lives off his wife’s money while teaching college writing classes. When former student Clifford Anderson (Robert Ross) mails him a sure-fire hit (also called “Deathtrap”), he and his wife Myra (Barbra McCulloh) lure Clifford to their Connecticut home, where Sidney plans to kill him off and steal the script for himself.

Levin’s first-act plot begs for believability, which Baker’s performance largely earns. Under Richard Edelman’s direction at Bristol Riverside Theatre, Baker delivers his dialogue in a menacing baritone that turns his scene ending lines into ominous cliffhangers. Roman Tatarowicz built a towering, haunted house for Bruhl’s country estate, with gigantic windows through which Kate Ashton’s lighting design thrills with fear-inducing lightning.

But Edelman’s singular focus and his glacial pace kills the comic aspects of the play, humor largely provided in the script by the intrusion of a dimwitted, pesky lawyer (Mordecai Lawner) and crime-solving psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Jo Twiss). Where Twiss’ appearances should amplify Sidney and Clifford’s running comedic commentary, she now offers the only relief, and Lawner loses so many of his lines that he can neither set up nor deliver his jokes.

Too bad. The remainder of the humor hinges on Sidney and Clifford’s ridiculous self-referential banter about the construction of the perfect thriller, here rendered as annoying chatter that only calls attention to this production’s deficits. When the pair imagine how successful their script would play on Broadway, in BRT’s production their enthusiasm only begs another question: who would want to see Deathtrap again after already watching it performed so poorly?

Deathtrap. Presented through February 24 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street Bristol, PA. Tickets: $35 to $45. Information: 215-785-0100 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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