Deathtrap by Ira Levin: Murder Most Queer at the State Theater

by James O’Barr

Anton Chekov famously advised fellow playwrights that if you’re going to hang a pistol on the wall of your set in the first act, then it should have been fired by the end of the second act — otherwise, don’t put it there. In Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s long-running and much-acclaimed Broadway comedic thriller, Levin doesn’t just hang a pistol on a wall of the curtainless State Theater stage, he hangs three, along with a rifle or two, an assortment of knives and swords, a battle axe, a crossbow — a whole wall full of weaponry. Even if you don’t know anything about Chekov or his sage stage advice, looking at that menacing armamentarium while waiting for Harlequin’s Deathtrap to begin, you have to wonder.

Left to right: Russ Holm, Jana Tyrrell, and Xander Layden as Clifford Anderson

Or maybe not. Maybe you’re just bedazzled by the wonderful set, taking up the entirety of the State Theater’s stage space, beautifully designed by Gerald Browning and artfully lit by Savannah Van Leuvan. But as another playwright famously said, “The play’s the thing,” and once the action begins, you’ll find yourself in the post-and-beam framed, antique-studded, expensively repurposed barn that serves as the living room/study of playwright Sidney Bruhl. Play posters take up the wall space not covered with weapons, but those posters tell of past glories. Once renowned as the author of several hit Broadway shows, Bruhl, played with dyspeptic authority by Harlequin veteran Russ Holm, is angry and glum. After a series of flops, his imagination has gone dry, along with his celebrity status and its commensurate income, leaving him dependent on his wife Myra’s money. Jane Tyrrell’s anxiously concerned Myra does her best to cheer him up, but only when he tells her he’s received a copy of a play with all the elements of a mega-hit, and written by a former seminar student of his, does she see an opening. She encourages him to offer to help the student, to collaborate with him, to produce the play or maybe even get credit as co-author. Sidney’s darkly comic response is that his desperate need for the kind of Broadway smash his student’s play offers, and the return to fame and fortune it promises, could be, well, homicidal. The play, called Deathtrap, is a classic thriller, with five actors, two acts, and one set. And therein hangs a gun.

Left to right: Russ-Holm and Xander Layden

Sidney invites the student to visit that night to discuss how the play might be improved. Xander Layden’s Clifford Anderson, full of deference, boyish charm, and buckets of gratitude for his eminent teacher’s interest, arrives. Myra, clearly worried about the direction things could go, tries to steer the conversation toward a collaborative relationship between the two. Sidney, however, once he’s assured himself that Clifford has brought the only extant copies of the play with him, takes things, so to speak, into his own hands. And we’re still in Act I! Before it ends, there’s a visit from a neighbor, Helga ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic noted for being called on by police to help solve murders. Played colorfully large and eccentric by Teri Lee Thomas, with an accent to match, she’s trying to get some rest, she says, but keeps picking up bad vibes coming from the Bruhl home. Sooner and later she will be back to issue warnings of impending disaster, as will the fifth character, Sidney’s attorney, Porter Milgrim, played by another versatile returnee to the Harlequin stage, Michael Christopher. As the play ends in the Bruhl living room, both Helga and Porter realize that what’s transpired there would make a terrific thriller, and that Deathtrap would be a perfect title. But then they begin to argue about who should profit from the riches that such a play would be guaranteed to generate, and…

Left to right: Teri Lee Thomas and Michael Christopher

As for Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, you’ll be guaranteed to leave the theater thoroughly entertained by this witty, clever, always surprising and masterfully acted production. Again, the set design—and maybe Master Carpenter Ethan Bujeaud should take a bow here — and the moody lighting, as well as the evocative use of music and sound effects designed by Keith Jewell, are all at the highest level. And Aaron Lamb, who brilliantly brought it all together, tells us in his Director’s Notes that he’s drawn to stories and characters that aren’t what they seem at first. “The best writers will keep you guessing,” he says. So will the best directors.

Photos by Shanna Paxton Photography.

Left to right: Teri Lee Thomas as Helga ten Dorp with Jana Tyrrell

Deathtrap by Ira Levin

Jan. 19 – Feb. 11
Evenings at 7:30 p,m,, Matinees at 2 p,m, on Sundays, and on Wednesday, Jan, 31

Harlequin Productions, State Theater, 202 4th Avenue, Olympia

General $43 – Senior/Military $40 – Discounted Tickets for Students/Youth/Groups
Rush Tickets – Two hours prior to showtime    
Pay What You Choose – Saturday, Jan. 27, 7:30 p,m,; Thursday, February 1, 7:30 p.m.

Left to right: Russ Holm and Jana Tyrrell

(360) 786-0151

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