What I learned. . .

Deathtrap was one of those assignments that I was more happy to be offered for the opportunity to work than I was about the script itself. At least at first. But the greatest lessons of several I learned from getting to direct the play were to never underestimate a well-made play, never doubt the fun you can have when working on what’s generically known as a thriller, relish the opportunity that requires you to draw on technical craft as a director, and to invoke a well-worn but applicable cliché: don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Deathtrap turned out to be a treat from start to finish – all the more so because I wasn’t entirely sure it would be when I accepted Tim Bond’s offer to direct the play.

I had seen the original production of Ira Levin’s long-running hit on Broadway and mostly remembered the moment in Act I that is intended to provoke the greatest vocal response from the audience. It was essential that we ‘nail’ that moment, which required careful planning and collaboration among Bill Bloodgood (set designer), Lonnie Alcaraz (lighting designer), Joe Payne (sound designer), Susan Branch Towne (costume designer) and myself. Making sure that the double French doors through which Clifford must suddenly leap, fairly catapulting himself through the air to attack Sidney, were properly placed and could be noiselessly prepped open without giving anything away, lit just enough to be visible, supported by excellent sound design in the exact moment of the “reveal,” and providing a properly bloodied, muddied, and distressed set of clothing and make-up for Clifford was a top priority from first meetings and conversations about the play all the way through to opening night. And one of the great rewards of meticulous planning was sitting amidst playgoers at preview and opening performances who screamed out loud and jumped in their seats when the moment occurred. Job well done.

Part of the delight of working on the play was discovering the tightness and economy of the writing. Levin wasted not a word and left no thread of logic unexamined. Deathtrap holds up and is remarkably well constructed for what turns out to be a very reasonable running time. 

It was also fun to revisit my childhood stomping grounds: Fairfield County, Connecticut, via a script that even managed to reference my hometown of Wilton. The references and environs were incredibly familiar; the buildings, roads, shops that Levin describes and invokes have a complete ring of truth as do the details of the time period in which the play is set. But perhaps the greatest joy of all was working once more with an excellent design team and in addition, a truly fun and gifted cast. James Lloyd Reynolds, Carl Howell, Anney Giobbe, Joyce Cohen, and Curzon Dobell could not have been more game or more ready to take the material seriously. James had played Sidney once before and some time prior to actual auditions and casting mentioned to me that Sidney was a bear of a role. When I saw James’s name on the list of actors coming in to read, I breathed a huge sigh of relief – and exhaled an even larger breath when he accepted the offer to reprise the role. Carl and I had also worked together before and had had a wonderful time; his readings for Clifford were completely convincing, and I suspected his chemistry with James would develop and pay off throughout the rehearsal and performance process. My instincts were correct. Anney Giobbe was new to me, but she brought what I felt was the right combination of fragility and intelligence to the role of Myra. I’d directed Joyce Cohen once before and had seen her work in a number of productions; the seriousness with which she approached Helga (a role entirely too easy to ‘cartoon’ or caricature) in auditions and callbacks was exactly what I was hoping for. And though Curzon Dobell had auditioned for me on several occasions for other productions, we had yet to work together. His ability to convey a sense of “Westport, Connecticut attorney” along with his slightly wacky, off-center sense of humor convinced me he was the right actor to play the small (two scenes) but crucial role of Porter Milgrim, Sidney and Myra’s attorney.

In addition to knowing what I was looking for in auditions (and lucking out that what I thought I was looking for actually showed up when it came time to cast), this was another production that benefitted from a generous rehearsal schedule. I am a firm believer that the best acting comes from a state of relaxation and that the only way to direct relaxation is to give actors the opportunity to repeat. Repetition leads to ownership leads to relaxation -- and relaxation leads to playfulness, which is always great as long as that playfulness takes place within the context of the production on which you’re working and the agreements you’ve reached with your cast and designers. And having a schedule that allows for several full run-throughs means that you, as director, have the opportunity to sit or stand back and absorb the play in its entirety and come to understand its structure from seeing it, start to finish, on more than one or two occasions, which is all too frequently the case in this age of tight time constraints.  It also helps the actors “play through” and gain a sense of momentum, arc, and the requisite energy it takes to fulfill the playwright’s vision. Once more, I lucked out with Syracuse Stage’s rehearsal schedule.

It was also interesting to experience progress in audiences’s awareness and acceptance of gay relationships on stage. When Sidney and Clifford’s sexual-romantic connection became apparent towards the end of Act I, my sense was that the audience was far less shocked than it had been when the original production ran on Broadway. Then it seemed titillating and ground-breaking; now it seems merely interesting and familiar. No big deal, except in how the relationship affects the story and triggers the action. We seem to have made progress after all.

I think the final lesson I learned from directing Deathtrap was a small but significant one. When it comes to stage blood being visible to an audience, make sure the garment it appears on is white or very light colored. (And when in doubt, there’s nothing wrong with finding photographs from the original production to see what worked.) Susan Branch Towne and I jumped through several varied hoops (and probably drove the costume shop/wardrobe department nuts) before we found what should have been the obvious combination of clothing and palette for the “Sidney garottes Clifford” moment, which needs to be shocking and credible. We might have saved ourselves some time if we had simply gone to the source, as ‘twere. Fortunately, with much of the clothing for Deathtrap purchased and only five characters to costume, a bit of down-to-the-wire adjustment did not become a back-breaking straw. Sometimes though, it’s the easy and obvious lessons that we overlook of which we need to be reminded and which we continue to re-learn.


Syracuse Stage

May, 2017

“Could you commit murder? A simple question, but the undeniable lure that pulls audiences in during the first five minutes of "Deathtrap," the 1978 play by Ira Levin now at Syracuse Stage. To call it a murder mystery would be selling it short. Right off the bat we know whodunit -- or who is contemplating doing it -- but as with all good crime stories, unexpected twists and turns electrify the tale and spark frissons of delight. 

“’Deathtrap’ is more than a well-plotted mystery. The dialogue crackles with quips that are laugh-out-loud worthy, the characters slip their seemingly predictable straightjacket roles and surprise us, and everything loops back around so adroitly that you can't help but smile when the final curtain drops.

“The comedy-thriller genre isn't an easy one, which may explain why middle-aged ‘Deathtrap’ still retains its record as the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway -- four years and just under 1,800 performances at the Music Box Theatre. Having seen the original Broadway show in 1978 at the impressionable age of 17, I can reliably vouch that Syracuse Stage's current offering, directed by Paul Barnes, comes close to that Tony-award winning production.

“Everything about this production is spot-on, from the stable-turned study -- the "one set" -- of Sidney's writing space in the Bruhl home designed by William Bloodgood to the actors' performances. Costume designer Susan Branch Towne has a bit of playful fun with character outfits, giving Sidney a burgundy-colored turtleneck and Helga burgundy pants, linking the two and subtly reinforcing the idea that the psychic may be capable of stepping into Sidney's soul and seeing his future. And fight director Alec Barbour's choreography makes the ensuing physical altercations credible and realistic.

"’There's a world of difference between a paper victim and a real one,’ Sidney Bruhl muses. In the course of witnessing murders both bloody and bloodless, I'd have to agree. Yet in the midst of the mayhem, as Bruhl drops trenchant one-liners, pithy zingers, and snappy witticisms, the audience can't help but chuckle. The comic relief is welcome in a show that often grabs you by the throat. 

Deathtrap offers a riveting blend of suspense, horror and hilarity. Between the gasps and the laughs, this production's a hit.”

     Tony Curulla NY Entertainment

“The theatrical thriller is a rarity; as suspense, shock and surprise are difficult to pull off on live stage.

“Crisply directed by Paul Barnes, who accentuates the shocks and builds tension throughout; the Syracuse Stage production is a blast to watch and is terrific theater, especially for those who love to listen and stay ahead of the plot.

“Have no fear, this production is energetic, sharp, and a great homage to the theatrical thriller.”

     Craig Thornton


“Deathtrap takes place in 1978, as we are reminded by carbon paper, dial phones, Danish modern furniture and a magenta turtleneck that Robert Wagner might have worn in his prime. The play is as securely fixed in time as The Three Musketeers is. Move the setting forward and the drama will collapse. Technology, specifically the smartphone, has been more damaging to the thriller than indiscreet reviewers. Tension relies on information not being accessible. There’s a lot we don’t know at the beginning, and when the truth enters, it thunders.

“Sidney Bruhl (James Lloyd Reynolds) is a once-successful author of thrillers for the stage who is going through a long dry stretch. At the beginning of the action he’s straining his eyes to read a carbon copy of a new play written by a student, Clifford Anderson, he has been teaching part time. It’s called Deathtrap and it describes a set very much like the one before us: a beautiful paneled study, with antique weapons on the wall (props from other shows), in tony Westport, Conn. In reading the play, Sidney is beside himself in neuroses and self-accusation: This is exactly the play he’d like to write. He’s sure it will be a hit and make millions. But he knows he is no longer capable of fashioning such a masterwork himself.

“Director Paul Barnes had previously worked with actor James Lloyd Reynolds for Syracuse Stage’s The Miracle Worker (March 2011). We can guess that there was no need for auditions, and Barnes went straight for the man he knew could strike sparks at every opportunity. At times it feels as though Reynolds’ Sidney is not trying to impersonate Agatha Christie as much as Oscar Wilde: “Nothing recedes like success.” How could such an adroit wordsmith be tongue-tied at the keyboard?

“Once the shocks to the system roll in, the action in Deathtrap takes abrupt turns, hurtling us in new directions with the same characters on the same set. The zigzag progress in the action invites comparison with the prints by the celebrated Dutch artist Maurits Escher. Levin hints as much by having the family lawyer Porter (Curzon Dobell) refer to an offstage character named, significantly, ‘Morrie Escher.’

“Not yet 40 years old, Deathtrap is one of the all-time popular American plays and was once a staple in community theater. Levin intended the show for Broadway, and it gains measurably from first-class production values, such as scenic designer William Bloodgood’s stylish but dated interiors, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s brilliant and perfectly timed lighting design, and Joe Payne’s sound design for things that go bump in the night. The ones we can’t talk about.”

     James MacKillop

     Syracuse New Times