Blocking the comedy/thriller stage chestnut “Deathtrap” is a “bit like doing theater and a bit like doing math.” Or maybe like storyboarding a movie, says Pioneer Theatre Company guest director May Adrales.
That’s because Ira Levin’s 1978 play about a down-on-his-luck playwright is so tightly constructed that every line of dialogue and every position of a set piece or prop matters.
“It’s a fantastically constructed play,” Adrales says. “No stone is left unturned, there are no wasted words. That’s what makes it a challenge to direct. Where you place a prop in the first scene impacts how you stage the second scene.”
“Deathtrap” is still noted for its four-year Broadway run from 1978 to 1982. Marian Seldes, who played the playwright’s wife, appeared in all 1,793 performances, earning an entry as the “most durable actress” in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”
Levin’s play was adapted into a 1982 movie, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, but the writer is best-known for his novels “A Kiss Before Dying,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives.”
There aren’t comedy-thriller’s like “Deathtrap” produced anymore, says New York-based actor Thom Sesma, who plays conniving, desperate playwright Sidney Bruhl. “The very eclectic level of craftsmanship is hidden in the template of a boulevard comedy thriller,” says Sesma, adding that the script aims to fool the audience constantly.
The playwright refers to himself as “four-flops Bruhl,” but his life crisis should be relevant to any theatergoer who might have experienced a bit of a life crisis. “His actions may be devious and underhanded and possibly homicidal, but they’re justified on the basis of his desperation,” Sesma says. “The charming thing about the play is on the surface it seems to be about theatrical ambition, but I don’t think it’s limited to life in the theater.”
Devin Norik plays Clifford Anderson, a young student writer who sends his new script, “Deathtrap,” to Bruhl, who attempts to steal it.
The character takes joy in his ambition of seeking success, which reminds the actor of all the wannabe web and reality TV stars of his generation, who are filming their own quests for celebrity and posting their lives on YouTube.
Utah-based actor Kymberly Mellen, who plays psychic Helga Ten Dorp, describes the play as a thriller, a domestic drama and a comedy, all woven together.
“ ‘I can’t help sticking my nose in where I’m not wanted,’ she says over and over again,” Mellen says, quoting her character, who offers some of the script’s comic relief.
While Helga’s predictions can be on target, she also often messes things up. She can’t separate the living people from dead characters onstage. “Images confusing,” the character says, as if she were seeing multiple holograms at the same time.
“Is she referencing the past, present or future? You never know and neither does she,” Mellen says. “You have no idea of the accuracy of her predictions until the very last word.”
Staging a ‘Deathtrap’
P Pioneer Theatre Company will stage Ira Levin’s long-running Broadway comedy-thriller.
When • Opens Friday and plays through April 12: Monday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25-$44 in advance ($5 early-bird discounts before March 21); $5 more on day of show; tickets for K-12 students are half price on Monday and Tuesday; at 801-581-6961 or www.pioneertheatre.org