By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If there ever was a play that judges success when the audience gasps together, then laughs at its own collective surprise, it’s the one that opens the season at Teatro Live! (the newly renamed Teatro La Quindicina), a company devoted to snapping the elastic of the concept ‘comedy’.
That’s the fun, potentially, and the intricate challenge of Deathtrap, the vintage 1978 hit by Ira ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Levin. It’s both a comedy thriller and a parody of comedy thrillers: a case of cracking a chestnut and finding another chestnut inside.
And the production directed by Nancy McAlear, in her Teatro debut, is the fun that can happen when a cast of top-drawer pros apply themselves expertly to a devious play-within-a-play, possibly within-another-play, a classic of its kind that’s expressly designed to be conniving, calculating, misleading — and also make people laugh.
The Deathtrap setting is pure murder mystery à la Dame Agatha: an isolated country house, full of old-school stage weaponry, on a dark and stormy night. The handsome two-storey set is by Chantel Fortin, lighted from a variety of atmospheric sources by Alison Yanota. The characters themselves place it in the lethal world of old-school Broadway theatre, or at least on the Connecticut outskirts, since its two principal characters are playwrights.
Sidney, the elder of the two, and the owner of the house, is a has-been writer of stage thrillers, fretting away in perpetual writer’s block. His last hit, The Murder Game, was 18 years ago; there are only flops on his resumé since. Ian Leung, an actor who really knows how to get the gravitas into a comic performance, puts the stakes back into writer’s block. Even his beige patterned sweater (costume designer: Leona Brausen, apt as ever) has the mothball flavour of word block about it.
In Leung’s performance Sidney exudes the cynical pomposity and world-weariness of the veteran who has basked in the limelight and can’t reconcile himself to outsider status. He name-drops and sneers; his studiedly casual insider throw-away references to Hal Prince, David Merrick, Michael Caine or George S. Kaufman, aren’t random at all. And the arrival on his desk of a brilliant first script by a young playwright protegé, a brilliant thriller called Deathtrap that Sidney recognizes as a sure-fire Broadway hit (“even a (famous) director couldn’t hurt it,” he sighs), sets the ever-oiled always idling machine of his jealousy in motion.
An invitation to the young man ensues. And Sidney’s sour jokes with his wife Myra (Kristin Johnston) about offing the young man and claiming the play as his own seem to be making her ever more apprehensive in the very first scene. “What’s the point of having a mace if you don’t use it?” he says to her, a (possibly) light-hearted reference to Chekhov’s famous dictum about introducing a gun in Act I.
Then the young theatre aspirant arrives with the only copy of Deathtrap (Sidney calls it “an enormously promising … first draft”), a script no one else has seen. This is the moment, early in Act I, that I have to stop telling you about the plot. Except perhaps to suggest that the off-the-rack advice to “write what you know” should be offered cautiously when it comes to comedy thrillers involving murderous intent and whole walls of weaponry. In that vein, the standard practice of workshopping a play “on its feet” takes a shiv too in Deathtrap.
Anyhow, Clifford is played with a very amusing wide-eyed comic bustle by Geoffrey Simon Brown — all lanky physical exuberance (he seems to bound, on springs, across the room and up the stairs), flamboyant deference (there’s a theatrical oxymoron for you), and the kind of irrepressible good cheer that is bound to grate on Sidney and bring out the pompous in him. So do Clifford’s breezy assessments about the shallow, “arthritic” conventions of comedy thrillers (Deathtrap is nothing if not self-referential). Clifford, as Brown’s performance captures to a T, doesn’t deflate easily.
Gianna Vacirca has a riotous time with a preposterous Dutch psychic character, Sidney and Myra’s neighbour with an outsized accent, who arrives head-first sniffing the floor and furniture and detecting “pain.” She has a stake in showbiz circles, too, as references to Merv Griffin or The Amazing Kreskin attest.
A thriller with five characters about a thriller with five characters does shortchange Myra. But Johnston captures a certain period cadence, and her mounting nervousness, carefully calibrated, ups the tension in McAlear’s production. And Corben Cushneryk, whose ‘70s hair sits solidly on his head like a helmet, is a theatre-loving lawyer who’s just there to notice things.
In a theatre town the opening night audience, full of theatre people and playwrights, had a fine time of it Thursday. After all, it’s full of nods to theatre conventions, jokes about directors and producers, collaboration (a theatre favourite, that one), writing credits and plagiarism, the archive of venerable thrillers from Sleuth to Dial M For Murder. Will it lag in Act II, characters ask each other about Deathtrap. Well, yes, it does, a bit. But how can you resist that entertaining kind of self-knowledge? Sit back, relax, get tense, and gasp away.
Theatre: Teatro Live!
Written by: Ira Levin
Directed by: Nancy McAlear
Starring: Ian Leung, Geoffrey Simon Brown, Kristin Johnston, Corben Kushneryk, Gianna Vacirca
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Dec. 4