It’s well nigh impossible to update Ira Levin’s intricately crafted money-maker, because the plot depends so heavily on pre-microchip writing paraphernalia. When playwright Sydney Bruhl (Gould) proposes murdering a former writing student, Clifford Anderson (Douglas Wert), who has written a surefire thriller that Bruhl wants to steal, playwright Levin goes to extraordinary lengths to assure his audience that Bruhl has his hands on every possible copy of the masterpiece. Thus the script talks of this carbon and that carbon, the “age of Xerox” and the merits of electric typewriters.
Thus “Deathtrap” is forever condemned to the late 1970s, an era not yet sufficiently distant to read as a period revival. This visually ambiguous 1996 version totters uneasily between ’70s style and contemporary slickness.
Perhaps the producers should have waited another decade or two, until what was once an ultra-modern thriller achieves a measure of period charm. We’re certainly not there yet.
Just as the tour of “Dial M for Murder” seemed a limited showcase for the considerable talents of Roddy McDowall, so “Deathtrap” is an uneasy vehicle for its above-the-title stars. The earnest Mariette Hartley is perfectly fine as Bruhl’s wife, Myra, but the character has a fatal heart attack just before intermission, and returns only for her final bow. Given that most of her first-act lines are variations of “please don’t kill him, darling,” the hard-working Hartley has very little to do that merits trekking all across the country.
Gould has some strong comic moments, but he rattles through the dramatic exposition as if his plane out of town were already speeding down the runway. He also effects an inappropriately camp sensibility that suggests his sexual relationship with Clifford long before the audience is supposed to have figured that out. Sydney’s necessary mean streak — and his consequent capacity to kill — are submerged amidst the one-liners and Gould’s hound-dog expression.
With rippling muscles and the looks of a model, Wert’s casting as a writer seems to have more to do with sex appeal than verisimilitude, but he turns in a solid performance. There is also good comic work from the enigmatic Marilyn Cooper as the psychic next door (although the infomercials of the ’90s have rather destroyed the novelty of that particular cameo). Rounding out the cast is the solid Doug Stender as a straightlaced lawyer.
Given the explicit demands of the script, most “Deathtrap” sets look very similar, and while James Noone’s design looks fine, it does nothing to break the mold. But then, innovation is not the order of theatrical business here, just the squeezing of extra road miles out of an exceptionally well-crafted but now tired piece of commercial theater.