Way of the gun
There’s an old adage in the drama world known as Chekhov’s gun: If there’s a gun placed on stage in the first act, it needs to go off by the third act. Everything on stage must serve a purpose, so if that gun isn’t going to be fired, don’t put it there.
To describe Ira Levin’s wickedly funny play, Deathtrap, in production now at Brüka Theatre, is hard to do without giving away spoilers. So, bearing the Chekhov’s gun principle in mind, I’ll start by saying that when the lights come up on the set—which will remain a constant for the entirety of the nearly three-hour play—you’ll see immediately that its walls are lined with antique weaponry, from rifles and machetes to pistols, daggers, a garrote, a crossbow and a mace.
Levin’s script and carefully arranged scenery and props drop important breadcrumbs in this way throughout the play. Every line and every prop mean something and lead somewhere. You won’t want to look away or miss a single line.
Take the opening scene, which is laden with breadcrumbs. I don’t think it’s revealing too much to explain how the play starts. Sidney Bruhl (Michael Peters) is an aging playwright who was successful long ago but hasn’t written a hit in ages. His latest is a flop. He and his nervous, excitable wife, Myra (Mary Bennett), bemoan their dwindling savings—primarily hers—and Sidney’s own inability to come up with an idea. Meanwhile, a former student from one of Sidney’s workshops, Clifford Anderson, has sent him an unsolicited script for his first play, in the hope that Sidney will bestow a few gems of wisdom on the younger man.
To Sidney’s great dismay, the play is good. So good he can’t find fault with it. He’d kill to have such a hit on his hands. Literally.
The Bruhls invite young Cliff (Chris Willson) to their Westport, Connecticut, home under the guise of mentorship, but to Myra’s astonishment, Sidney has a deadly ulterior motive.
This play-within-a-play is endlessly self-referential. Characters often refer to conventions of plays, acting and even the film based on this very play. For instance, Sidney and Clifford speak of the holy grail of theater—the two-act, five-character, one-set thriller—the same format of which they are a part. It’s all very meta.
It also is a classic cat-and-mouse story. Just when you think you know which characters are good or bad, things change. The characters taunt and torture each other constantly, and until the very end, you won’t know where it’s all headed.
Peters reprises the role he held in 2003 in Reno Little Theater’s production of this play. He was strong in the role then, but now he’s a master. His interplay with another masterful actor, Bennett, who is absolutely hilarious as the twittery, jittery Myra, is genius stuff. Also delightful is Lynn Carasali’s perfectly shrill, comical performance as Helga Ten Dorp, the Dutch psychic who’s just moved in down the street and whose visions keep thwarting the characters’ plots.
What I also love in this production directed by first-time Brüka director Michelle Merksamer is the careful attention to details—convincingly bloody fight scenes and the perfectly appointed set, the cozy living room of the Bruhls’ colonial home in Westport. You’ll find everything from a working fireplace (“practical to the extent that paper can be burned in it”) to the furniture (all well-selected for specific purposes), to the well-placed windows and doors that offer some jump-out-of-your-seat surprises, to effects such as a beautifully executed thunderstorm, cleverly designed and placed props and even transitional music that adds to the funny-yet-eerie ambiance.
Despite the show’s length, you will remain on the edge of your seat waiting for the twists and turns in this story to straighten themselves out. And it’s a ride you’ll thoroughly enjoy.