Ira Levin was an amazingly creative writer. I knew nothing about him until recently,when I took on the role of Sidney Bruhl in Deathtrap, but he reminds of Stanley Kubrick, in a way, because of his ability to tackle multiple “genres.” It’s more than just genre. Marlboro, where I taught psychology for a couple years, had Gender Bender dances. Levin and Kubrick have genre-bending styles.
There is something else that ties them together, a kind of self-reflection that their works have. They turn in on themselves like an Escher drawing. Deathtrap is particularly self-reflective, continually turning back to look at itself. The play, Deathtrap — “a five character, one set thriller” is about a play Deathtrap, that is described bas the holy grail of theatre: “a five character, one set money-maker.” (The actual play, Deathtrap, did in fact, become an enormous money-maker. The longest running thriller in Broadway history to this day and still making tons of money on the amateur rights, exactly as described in the script, feeding and clothing generations of its author’s family.) All five characters, in one way or another, all more or less normal people, if a bit strange, but basically normal, transform into people who are willing to kill for the chance to have a five-character, one set money-maker.
“Thrilleritis malignis,” Sidney Bruhl, the semi-demonic thriller-writer cum potential murderer, calls it. “The fevered pursuit of the five-character, one set, money-maker.”
It is most certainly not a classic thriller like Gaslight. Again, in mirror upon mirror reflection to infinity, Deathtrap refers repeatedly to Gaslight’s theatrical origin, Angel Street. The classic thriller has no time for such idle play. The victim and audience must be terrified from start to the final release in the denouement. But here we have time to play. And that, too, lets the audience relax and enjoy itself.
In Deathtrap, Levin plays with dimensionality. His characters are both two- and three-dimensions simultaneously; they are caricatures of human nature at the same time as being very real, believable, understandable.
Sidney Bruhl’s character is very dark, and, at the same time, very light, comic-book thin. We are more apt to laugh at Sidney than to cry at his tragic greed. We are able to laugh because he is unreal at the same time that we can experience him as completely real, feel his pain and his hatred, his grandiosity and his emptiness. His utter desperation. And laugh again at his stupid attempts at humor in the most unlikely situations to be making a joke.