Ira Levin’s 1978 mystery-thriller Deathtrap is a popular perennial with summer stock and community theaters. That popularity is underscored this month when two separate productions perform back-to-back at nearly neighboring theaters. This week it opens for a three-weekend run at the Suffield Players, just over the line in Connecticut, and as soon as that one closes Springfield’s Panache Productions opens its own version.
The hit play by the author of Rosemary’s Baby ran for four years on Broadway and was made into a movie starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. It’s a classic rendition of the multiple-switcheroo, can’t-trust-anyone melodrama, often tongue-in-cheek but with real scares and surprises. The setup—a famous but dried-up playwright covets a young rival’s script and plots to do him in to get it—is only the entrée to the plot’s hairpin twists. There’s also a play (called Deathtrap) within the play, and plenty of theater-world jokes.
Panache, now in its 14th season, performs in the 90-seat studio theater at CityStage. That intimacy, says director John McKimmie, helps to give this show an added zing. “It’s a wonderful play to be performed there, because the audience is right there in the playwright’s study, where all of the surprising action takes place,” he says. “While the movie was very enjoyable, the stage play is even more enjoyable,” he insists. “You can’t beat live theater, because all of the shocks and surprises are right there in front of the audience.”
Suffield’s Deathtrap is part of the company’s 60th-anniversary season. Director Robert Lunde points out that even the most popular thriller—especially the most popular thriller—can lose its appeal once it’s been revived so often that everyone knows the outcome. But he believes this show retains its popularity despite its frequent productions because the plot’s ins and outs are so complex and unpredictable that even if you’ve seen it before you probably don’t remember exactly what’s going on. In his director’s notes, he reports a common response to news that the show is being mounted: “Oh I love Deathtrap! Tell me what the story is again?”
He also reminds us that “deathtrap” is a term of art—“a theatrical plot device in which the villain captures the hero and attempts to use an elaborate, sadistic method of murdering [him]. But in this case, he adds, “the audience cannot be sure of who is the villain and who is the hero.”
In larger terms, Lunde sees the play as “a struggle to stay on top.” Each of the five characters, it turns out, “wants a piece of the proverbial pie.” The same goes for all of us in the real world, he says. “We’re all looking for a way to not only survive, but to test our boundaries and at least maintain our place in life, if not achieve just a little more.” The crux of Deathtrap, he finds, is that question of boundaries: “Are you able to stop yourself before you go just beyond the moral border?”
The Deathtrap coincidence isn’t the first time the two companies have programmed in tandem. Recent seasons have turned up an almost eerie correspondence between the near-neighbors. Both troupes performed Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in 2010-11 and another thriller, Wait Until Dark, last season.•
Feb. 7-23 at Suffield Players, 1305 Mapleton Avenue, Suffield, CT, 800-289-6148 or 860-668-0837, http://www.suffieldplayers.org.
March 1-10 at Panache Productions, Winifred Arms Studio Theater, CityStage, 1 Columbus Center, Springfield, 413-283-5980.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.