A thriller in two acts, with five characters.
It’s difficult to know exactly what to write about this play, since in a sense it feels like writing about anything specific is giving the game away. If you’ve seen the play (or the movie), you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, you probably don’t.
But I bet you can guess! “Deathtrap” is a thriller that will delight smart people who love theater, and who love to play the “I bet I know what happens” game. At my house, we play this game at home in front of the TV all the time: investigate the actor, track down the reference, guess the plot twist, guess the next line of dialogue. We love to be right—and we’re totally delighted when we’re wrong because the writers were one step ahead.
Ira Levin is a lot of steps ahead. Levin, the author of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives,” is writing here yet another story about perfectly normal people, who are just as steeped in regular-people worries as we are: Sidney and Myra are having money problems, feeling old, wrangling with their spouse about what they want for dinner, weighing whether they really want to go see that movie whatsitcalled with their “couple friends” whom they maybe don’t like so much…
The people in this world are also just as steeped in pop culture as we are, even more so because popular culture is their line of work. Sidney is a famous playwright, and Helga (hey, that’s me!) is a minor celebrity/author/TV personality. There are a ton of plays, movies, and other pop-culture references just casually dropped into the dialogue between all the characters; Levin is assuming that they’re all pretty familiar to his contemporary audience.
The characters’ sheer normal-ness, like in Levin’s other famous works—and their sheer practical closeness to us the audience, both figuratively AND literally, at the Vault—makes it all the more shocking when Things start to Happen. And we, the forever-suspicious audience, will be whipping ourselves into a frenzy trying to outguess what will happen and when, and why!
Levin, as I say, is fully aware of this. For audiences familiar with the concept of “Chekhov’s gun” (you see a gun on the wall, in act one, it better go off by the end of the show), he’s thumbing his nose at you: the set of “Deathtrap” is very specifically plastered with crazy weapons everywhere. Sidney as a thriller-playwright is constantly name-dropping mystery plays and movies, leading us towards all kinds of conspiratorial theories. Is he giving us hints?!? Is he throwing us red herrings!? What are they having for dinner—and is that a clue!?!
There’s even a character within the play itself whose job is to make guesses about clues involved in murders! Helga ten Dorp (hey, that’s me!) is already known to them as a household name who makes predictions about unsolved cases. How correct her predictions are (and yours,audience) has yet to be seen…
Since the play takes place in the late 1970s, things like smartphones didn’t exist, and so classic thriller tropes (isolation, telephone, typewriter) are still valid, and characters couldn’t do instant research or track each other down. Also, that goes for the audience (and looking stuff up on your phone during the show is a definite faux-pas anyway, as you know, friends) — so it might be harder to look up references in real time the way we do at my house when we’re watching TV. Therefore: here are some actual real facts to make you feel smarter—and maybe they might help you enjoy/puzzle out “Deathtrap” when you come see it.
Some actual real facts I learned; check it out:
Did you know that the 1954 Hitchcock film of “Dial M for Murder” was filmed (and shown) in 3D?
Did you know that “Gaslight” was originally produced in the U.S. under the title “Angel Street?”
Did you know that Andrew Wyke, the main character in the play “Sleuth,” was inspired in part by Stephen Sondheim?
Did you know that Harry Houdini’s birth name was Erik Weisz, which is awfully similar to the name of the aforementioned game-obsessed Andrew Wyke?
Did you know that Michael Caine was in TWO different film adaptations of the play “Sleuth,” 35 years apart, and he was ALSO in the film adaptation of “Deathtrap?”
Did you know that Harry Houdini signed up for the draft under the name “Harry Handcuff Houdini?”
Did you know about Gerard Croiset (né Boekbinder), the real-life famous Dutch psychic who assisted police investigations in his home country?
Did you know Patti LuPone has a brother named Robert who also has a blockbuster showbiz career?
Did you know that The Merv Griffin Show’s first incarnation debuted the same day that Johnny Carson took over The Tonight Show—and that they filmed in the very same studio, just at different times of the day?
Did you know David “Videodrome” Cronenberg wrote the book to a musical—at least once? (It was for a musical called “Spellbound,” and it was completely replaced by a different book and music written around the same magic tricks when the production morphed into “The Magic Show”)
Hope to see you at “Deathtrap” — if you make it out alive!