Total Rating: 
August 10, 2017
August 27, 2017
Milwaukee Chamber Theater
Theater Type: 
Milwaukee Chamber Theater - Cabot Theater
Theater Address: 
158 North Broadway
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 30 min
Ira Levin
Michael Cotey

Still considered Broadway’s longest-running comedy/thriller some four decades after its debut, Deathtrap appears to still have some sizzle in a tantalizing production by Milwaukee Chamber Theater.

Thankfully, director Michael Cotey keeps us in the play’s original time frame (mid-1970s). Instead of “modernizing” the play by introducing cell phones and other digital conveniences, we can blissfully return to an earlier time. The ringing telephone was America’s lifeline to the outside world, especially in a remote Connecticut estate.

As a result, we can see Levin’s original chess game-of-a-play unfold in all its glory. It is impossible to discuss the play’s plot without mentioning Arnel Sancianco’s set. It’s of an upscale lodge (the main character’s home) that looms above the action. Towering wood beams comprise the room’s roofline, and wood is tastefully introduced throughout the architecture and furnishings. But an audience’s gaze is deliberately focused on collections of medieval weapons that adorn the walls. One finds more than 40 or so weapons in all, tastefully grouped throughout the interior. (There’s no point in decorating a set with unused weapons, however, and audiences will probably guess that elements of the wall décor will come into play once the play gets going.)

That’s about as far as audience members will get in guessing the plot, which twists and turns itself almost inside out before the final curtain comes down. Interestingly, the Chamber production is being staged in the glorious Cabot Theater, which contains more than a few faux touches of its own (for instance, the bottom of the red velvet curtain has “painted” fringe). Deathtrap and the Cabot stage seem made for each other. Deception abounds no matter where you look.

This finely crafted work is well-served by an excellent cast. Writer Sidney Bruhl (Bill Watson) is worried by a sudden case of writer’s block. His finances dictate that he needs another hit, and fast.

The play begins with a chat between Sydney and his loving wife, Myra (Susan Spencer). Sidney is pained at the idea of dipping further into his wife’s inheritance to keep the lights on. His loyal Myra, on the other hand, outwardly shows no such distress. She tries to convince him that another successful play is right around the corner. This is a long-time married couple, and she knows how to put him at ease.

Soon, they are joined by a young student, Clifford (Di’Monte Henning). Earlier, he had asked (by mail) if Bruhl will look at his draft of a play. As Bruhl skims through the work, his excitement can barely be contained. Experience tells him the script, once produced, will launch Clifford into the same top ozone layer that Bruhl wants to stay in as long as possible. The answer, he says to his now-horrified wife, is to kill Clifford and retype the play as his own.

When he summons Clifford to come to their country estate to discuss the play, the nervous young man arrives with a giddy sense of being brought to the principal’s house. Henning does a remarkable job of balancing several characters – with their telltale gestures and voice inflections – while never leaving the framework of Clifford. In short, appearances can be deceiving.

As Bruhl, Watson proves convincing throughout, especially while unmasking some undercover emotions that will play out over time. One cannot say the same of Susan Spencer. She has many impressive roles to her theatrical credits, so it may be easy to toss off her stiffness as an “off” performance. In any case, at no point does she seem truly comfortable in Myra’s skin. She tries hard to show a convincing Myra, so this isn’t a case of merely “phoning in” a performance, as they say. Happily, Myra turns out to be one of the play’s “minor” characters. It’s up to the veteran writer Bruhl and the eager Clifford to carry the play to its final conclusion. Their dialogue exchange seems much more fluid.

Before the play ends, occasional appearances are made by a well-known psychic, who just happens to be staying at a cottage next door (played by an engaging Mary Kababik), and Bruhl’s lawyer (David Sapiro, perhaps goofier than a lawyer ought to be). Both are good comics who lend much-needed laughter to break the play’s suspense. They also move the plot along; the psychic’s predictions and the lawyer’s observations are some of the key developments in this clever thriller.

The play catapults us through its fairly long run time of two and one-half hours. Some credit for this must go to fight director Christopher Elst. His fights, though staged as artfully as one would expect to see in ballet, seem to be fresh and involving. More could be said about this, but don’t look for spoilers in this review.

The massive set – certainly one of the most realistic and gorgeous ever produced by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre – reminds one of the high standards set by Milwaukee theater companies. This interior could rival any of the sets produced at the city’s flagship theater, Milwaukee Repertory. Luckily, both set and actors are intriguing lit by designer Alexander Ridgers. Ridgers carefully – though silently – succeeds in directing the audience’s attention to certain areas onstage. This allows the director to introduce other key elements in this complex play. Most of the actors realize that they, too, are caught in a Deathtrap, which is also the title of the play and the script written by the student. Keeping everything straight is part of the fun, however, and Chamber succeeds in thrilling audiences while entertaining them, as well.

adult themes
Bill Watson (Sidney Bruhl), Susan Spencer (Myra Bruhl), Di’Monte Henning (Clifford), Mary Kababik (Helga ten Dorp), David Sapiro (Porter Milgrim).
Set: Arnel Sancianco; Costumes: Eleanor Cotey; Lighting: Alexander Ridgers; Sound: Grover Hollway; Fight director: Christopher Elst.
Anne Siegel
Date Reviewed: 
August 2017