- The Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, 1978
- Character: Sidney Bruhl
PETER (Centre) with producer, Pieter Toeien, and director, Stockton Briggle, during the first rehearsal for ‘Deathtrap’.
Scene One: An afternoon in October.
Scene Two: That evening.
Scene Three: Two hours later.
Scene One: Two weeks later, morning.
Scene Two: A week later, night.
Scene Three: A week later, afternoon.
Sidney Bruhl (PETER WYNGARDE) is a celebrated writer of Broadway thrillers who’s suffering through a dry spell. After a string of embarrassing flops, he’s spending time in his comfortable Westport, Connecticut, home with his nervously afflicted wife, Myra, hoping to be touched with inspiration along the lines of that which resulted in The Murder Game, Sidney’s magnum opus.
To make Sidney’s slump all the more painful, Clifford Anderson, a student of one of Sidney’s writing seminars, has recently sent his mentor a copy of his first attempt at playwriting for Sidney’s review and advice. The play, Deathtrap, is a five character, two act thriller so perfect in its construction that, as Sidney says, “A gifted director couldn’t even hurt it.”
Using his penchant for plot, and out of his desperate desire to once again be the toast of Broadway, Sidney, along with Myra, cook up an almost unthinkable scheme: They’ll lure the would-be playwright to the Bruhl home, kill him, and market the sure-fire script as Sidney’s own.
But shortly after Clifford arrives, it’s clear that things are not what they seem! Indeed, even Helga Ten Dorp, a nosey psychic from next door, and Porter Milgram, Sidney’s observant attorney, can only speculate where the line between truth and deception lies. Alternating intrigue with humour, and throwing in more than one mind-reeling plot twist, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap is a classic suspense thriller.
Deathtrap is both the epitome of the classic thriller, as well as a playful insider’s poke at the genre. “A thriller in two acts,” says Sidney of his protégé’s script at the opening curtain. “One set. Five characters. A juicy murder in Act One, unexpected developments in Act Two. Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places. Highly commercial.”
It’s an apt description of the play the audience is about to experience. Furthermore, as the narrative progresses, Levin continues to toy with references to his own play, within the context of Clifford’s script of the same name.
But Levin – nor Bruhl, for that matter! – invented the dramatic structure of the ideal thriller. Throughout the play, Levin cleverly alludes to the collection of other memorable thrillers to which Deathtrap belongs: Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, Dial “M” for Murder by Frederick Knott, Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, and Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, which Sidney credits with infecting him with thrilleritis malignis at the age of 15, the very same age at which Levin himself decided upon the career of a writer.
When multiple sets and many players mean mounting production costs, the advantages of a single set and limited cast are obvious. Sleuth, the play to which Deathtrap is most often compared, took that theory to the extreme: Shaffer utilized a single set and only two actors to create one of the biggest hits of the 1970s, opening on Broadway in November 1970 and running for more than 1,100 performances. Its slim production costs, hardly at the expense of effective drama, are certainly one key to the show’s longevity. (Deathtrap, however, would beat Sleuth at its own game, running for nearly 1,800 shows later that decade).
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