A Tight Script, Witty Dialogue, Devilish Plot Twists, and a Highly Skilled TheatreFest 2018 Cast Make Deathtrap a Delight

Deathtrap stars Justin Brent Johnson (left) and Wade Newhouse (photo by Ron Foreman)
Deathtrap stars Justin Brent Johnson (left) and Wade Newhouse (photo by Ron Foreman)
<em>Deathtrap</em> stars <strong>Justin Brent Johnson (left) and Wade Newhouse (photo by Ron Foreman)
Deathtrap stars Justin Brent Johnson (left) and Wade Newhouse (photo by Ron Foreman)

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “death trap” as “a structure or situation that is potentially very dangerous to life.” Ira Levin’s Deathtrap — now playing in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall in Raleigh, NC as part of N.C. State University Theatre’s TheatreFest 2018 — is a play about writing a play called Deathtrap; and the play that they are writing definitely proves to be a “death trap.” How’s that for a piece of self-referential theaer? The play holds the record for the longest-running comedy-drama on Broadway — and with good reason. This script is tight, the dialogue is witty, and the plot is full of twists and surprises.

Sidney Bruhl, played by Wade Newhouse (who is reprising a role he played three years ago for Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest), is an older, established playwright (now experiencing a dry spell). He discusses a script with his wife Myra (played by Lynda Clark). It had been sent to him by a former student: Clifford Anderson, played by Justin Brent Johnson. Envious of the quality of this script, Sidney invites Clifford to their house to discuss possible revisions. Is this a trap? For whom? When will it spring? Who will be caught? And when will it quit springing? Etc., etc. A triangle has been created.

And in case that’s not a surefire recipe for a tasty comedy-drama, Ira Levin seasons the play by adding a psychic — Helga Ten Dorp (played by JoAnne Dickinson) — who drops in at unexpected, inconvenient times, creating discomfort and confusion. She “sees” plenty, and much of what she has “seen” is verified by our own eyes and ears. But what about her open-ended visions? The ones that we do not witness? Will these scenarios also come to pass? Etc., etc. That triangle has now become a quadrilateral.

And for a further garnish, Levin throws in Porter Milgrim (played by Danny Norris) — the Bruhl’s lawyer. How much does he know? About what? Etc., etc. Do we now have a pentagon? Or perhaps a pentangle?

This is a highly skilled cast. Under John C. McIlwee’s direction, they blend into a delicious ensemble. Even though there is never any doubt about the location of the focus of any scene, every character onstage holds the audience’s interest throughout. That is, we found ourselves shifting our gaze from character to character to keep ourselves updated on how each reacted to the words and actions of the others.

It’s really not a spoiler to reveal that a five-character mystery/thriller/comedy/drama includes four deaths. And we will add to this non-spoiler the fact that every character’s exit left us wishing for more.

And, just like a delicious meal ought to be served in an equally pleasing dish, designer Jayme Mellema’s set provides an opulent vessel for serving up this show. The interior of the Bruhl’s rural Connecticut cabin is intricately furnished in an upscale fashion. The posters and weapon collections called for in the script are expertly displayed upstage. And this set includes the room’s rafters, thereby creating the illusion that we are looking not only through the “Fourth Wall” but also, at times, through a “Fifth Wall” — the ceiling.

Adrienne McKenzie has deftly handled costumes, hair, and makeup to create the 1970s look and feel for this variety of characters. Clifford’s costume especially summoned up a bit of nostalgia for the Baby Boomer on this reviewing team.

The show’s sound and lighting design by the team of Darby Madewell and Joshua Reeves are both spot-on. We especially enjoyed the between-the-scenes music.

Seeing the fight choreography credited to Heather J. Strickland and Jason Bailey raised high expectations, and we were definitely not disappointed.

Deathtrap is the first course of the feast known as N.C. State University Theatre’s TheatreFest 2018 (which is a three-course meal). We look forward to the next two courses: Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps (directed by Rachel Klem) and Dan Goggin’s Nunsense (directed by John McIlwee).

SECOND OPINION: June 4th Raleigh, NC Chatham Life & Style review by Dustin K. Britt (who awarded the show 2.5 of 5 stars): https://chathamlifeandstyle.com/performing-arts; June 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article212217474.html; June 1st Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8987; May 30th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/deathtrap/Event?oid=14652801; and May 16th Hillsborough, NC WHUP/104.7 FM interview with director Rachel Klem, conducted by Wayne Leonard for “Lights Up!”: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-51618-permanent-archive/.

N.C. State University Theatre presents DEATHTRAP — as part of TheatreFest 2018 — at 7:30 p.m. June 6, 8, and 9 and 2 p.m. June 10 in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 E. Dunn Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607, on the NCSU campus.

TICKETS: $23 ($6 NCSU students, $15 students, $19 NCSU faculty and staff, and $21 seniors 60+), except $15 on Community Night (June 6th).

BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=TRAP.

SHOW: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/deathtrap/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/439451976509170/.

PRESENTER: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/ncstateuniversitytheatre, and https://twitter.com/ncsutheatre. VENUE: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/plan-your-visit/.

MAPS/DIRECTIONS: http://maps.ncsu.edu/#/buildings/tps.

WARNING: N.C. State University Theatre cautions, “Gun fire will be heard during this production.


Deathtrap (1978 Broadway comedy-thriller): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1377 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/deathtrap-3000 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deathtrap_(play) (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: https://issuu.com/syracusestage/docs/deathtrap_issuu (Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY).

Ira Levin (New York, NY playwright and novelist, 1929-2007): http://www.iralevin.org/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/ira-levin-6436 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0505615/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Levin (Wikipedia).

John C. McIlwee (director and director of N.C. State University Theatre): https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/our-team/ (NCSU faculty bio) and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100018658909234 (Facebook page).


Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.