By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
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 brtstage.org