A staged reading is always a dangerous route to take for actor and directors. In this format the performers’ physicality and intentions are focused towards the script in their hands, which can make them feel immobilized and their characters seem flat. It is especially courageous to put up a staged reading of a play with the notoriety of Deathtrap, which won the 1978 Tony Award for Best Play for playwright Ira Levin. A significant portion of the room has most likely already seen this Broadway classic produced by a full production team with seasoned actors who’ve had at least a few more weeks to memorize, stage, and color their performances. Luckily, local Ithaca theatre troupe The Homecoming Players casts a group of extraordinary actors, who successfully turn what could have been a long night at the Kitchen Theatre into a romp of suspense and hilarity.
The script on its own begins at a slow pace, forcing the intrinsic static reality of a staged reading into a challenging position to jumpstart the theatrical energy. But before anybody can settle into complacency, the first character is dead and the rest of the evening spirals into a suspenseful perpetual series of cliffhangers. Going into a play categorized as “comedy-thriller,” it is difficult to avoid the expectation of a cliché murder mystery; but Deathtrap deconstructs that genre from the inside out. It is a play about playwrights and quickly becomes overwhelmingly meta. While reveling in the indulgences of a thriller, Levin aggressively mocks concepts of reality and illusion. The result is a script that demands that the actors hook the audience into an abundance of intense life-or-death situations, at the same time helping the viewers delight in deciphering Levin’s mindlessly complicated world.
The play is driven by a cynical and well-established playwright named Sidney Bruhl, whom actor Arthur Bicknell brilliantly interprets with a casually maniacal performance. Equipped with direct asides to the audience and cleverly placed reminders that what has happened on stage so far would make a great play, Bicknell readily embellishes Levin’s metatheatrical trope. Bicknell pulled out an amusingly dry sense of humor, but the most enjoyable part of his performance was a jaded and almost sardonic delivery that had a seemingly self-reflective effect on the scene. He played Bruhl with a certain elevated air and natural bravado that separated his character from the rest of the cast. It felt as if he was nodding to the audience, saying, “I, too, am watching.” While Bicknell guides the audience through the action in the course of the evening, he seems to be as much of a bystander in his journey as the audience is.
If Bicknell is a master at breaking the illusion of a play within a play, then his co-star Jacob White must be equally as skillful at maintaining it. White thrives as Clifford Anderson, the young and talented writer who is as on edge as he is arrogant. White injects an amusing amount of vocal and physical energy into the play and forms a charismatic synergy with everyone who interacts with him. Effie Johnson plays the somewhat one-dimensional character of Sidney Bruhl’s wife, but does so admirably by highlighting her deep connection and reliance to Sidney. Her time on stage was short lived and left me wanting to see more of her character development. Rounding out the cast are Missel Leddington and Dean Robinson, whose comic relief had the Kitchen laughing out loud.
The cast was able to seduce the audience into the complex illusions that Levin builds, and it is to their credit that each and every twist and turn was more surprising than the last. The actors fought hard to earn my investment in the story, and they downright won. A bold play to put on as a staged reading, Deathtrap requires a company capable of expertly crafted acting, or else it could easily fall into a hodgepodge of unsatisfying plot developments of unjustified murders and incidentally witty remarks. With the utmost conviction, this cast pulled it off, and earned every bit of laughter and applause from the attentive audience.
For all of its praises I can sing, the proclaimed social justice aspect of the troupe left much to be desired. The only non-American character in the play, Helga Ten Dorp, was exoticized with an ambiguously eastern European accent, topped with a noticeably culturally incorrect headdress and her stated sole purpose was comic relief. The world of playwriting is depicted as one dominated by males, and while this is a realistic depiction of the field at the time at which it was written, it seems unnecessary for a contemporary audience. How much more fun would it be to recast that timeworn narrative by including female depictions of the profession? As a final note, the two main characters’ unstated but obvious homosexuality had a sense of shame and unnecessary delicacy around the issue that seems to have been stuck in 1978. It had me yearning for just one same-sex kiss for most of the play. While these critiques may reflect some of the inherent risks of working with a script written in another political epoch, I would be remiss to leave them unstated, as these temporal contradictions become normalized in the ways in which modern audiences view theatre. The hope is that we can re-imagine these wonderful scripts with a new, modern lens that empowers rather than normalizes the marginalization of identities that have historically been neglected or stereotyped on stage.
The real storyline here is that Deathtrap is a testament to the talent of local actors, something about which Ithaca can boast. The Homecoming Players are an up-and-coming theatre troupe who are proving that Ithaca’s pool of actors and directors have the capacity to put on premium theatre, even if we all already knew it.