Deathtrap is the second show in Wyndham Theatre Company’s 2013 season and its Russian doll-like layers of twists within twists make for an entertaining, if sometimes difficult, show.
Sidney Bruhl (Ron Fenton) is a famous playwright, living with his wife Myra (Renee Roccuzzo), amongst the spoils of a successful career penning thrillers and murder mysteries. Despite that success, however, Sidney is unable to rest on his laurels. He yearns for another hit to put him back on top, but his recent attempts at writing have yielded nothing but ever-diminishing returns. Hope arrives in the form of a manuscript, titled coincidentally, 'Deathtrap’ written by Clifford Anderson (Carl Reeson), one of Sidney's former workshop students. Clifford's play is bottled thespianic lightning, a phenomenal first effort from a kid who’s only ever worshipped Sidney, so much so that he eagerly accepts Sidney's invitation to his house to work on developing ‘Deathtrap’. Sidney, whose career has been made concocting twisted and macabre plots, can't help but dwell on the boost to his career if he was able to publish Clifford’s play under his name, not to mention what would have to happen to Clifford for that to occur. Myra already suffering from a weak heart, now has to endure the strain of watching her husband's ever-unsettling hypothetical scheme move from the world of fiction to one far more frighteningly real.
For a show that begins mid-action - just as Sidney has finished reading Clifford's manuscript – Deathtrap took a little while to get going. Like an engine turning over in the cold, it was a few minutes into the opening scene before things finally started sparking and running smooth. Alas, that humdrum smoothness seemed to last almost through the entire play, the pace a steady heartbeat. Thankfully, Roccuzzo’s stellar performance as Myra. Kim Cody's hilarious turn as psychic neighbour Helga, and Warrick Smith mixing things up (not just his drinks) in a lovely cameo as Porter, the fast-talking lawyer, made things more compelling to watch. lt's just that for the most part, scenes never rose above a polite canter.
That said, the script isn't an easy one to handle. Fenton, juggling the directing duties along with the lead role, and Reeson do their darnedest with what is a very dialogue-heavy text. lt requires a lot of heft, which our two male leads take to with gusto: Fenton with Sidney's careful, narrow-eyed plotting, and Reeson with the fervour in Clifford’s worship of his literary hero. Unfortunately, hampered by the pace, our two male leads are sometimes reduced to melodrama, generating mood through menacing scowls and loud voices. lnstead of safe choices (such as the one to hide most of the salacious stuff upstage), you'd rather they made more interesting ones. The audience is told things are tense rather than feeling it for themselves. Alan Thompson has built a fantastic set, littered with the detritus you could believe a character like Sidney would accumulate. Masquerade masks that wouldn't be out of place in Eyes Wide Shut, an array of weapons in ominous pride of place against the back wall- it's a space so convincing you'd think Damien Hurst had sliced a real life horror writer's room in half. The action on stage was supported by an effective sound and lighting design, although l'm uncertain if those lights should flicker at literally every sound and tremble of thunder during the storm scenes. Regardless of the production’s too few subtleties, acting and directing is a difficult thing to do at the best of times. For a first time in the director s chair, Ron Fenton (and the team at WTC) should be commended for what is a brave undertaking. You only wish a little more of that bravery and risk-taking had ended up in the final product.