The Perfect Murder: 1978

Culture Watch
tags: gay history, theater reviews, Deathtrap

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

THE BERKSHIRES: Sidney Bruhl used to be a ‘hot’ murder mystery playwright. Now, in 1978, in his late 40s, he has gone stale. He is glum when he reads a new play by one of his former students, Clifford Anderson, Deathtrap. Anderson’s play is thrilling, something Bruhl himself might have written, if he only had the talent. Bruhl moans to his wife Myra that he should have the glory, not one of his students. Then, all at once, he gets an idea. Why not get Anderson to let him collaborate on the play and share the glory, and a whole lot of money from it, too?

Myra agrees with him because she sees it as the only way out of his doldrums. What she does not know is that Bruhl has an even better idea. Why not kill Anderson and put his name on the play and rake in all of the money and glory himself? He does that, sending his nervous wife, who watches the surprise strangling of the poor Anderson, into trauma. Bruhl buries Anderson in the garden behind the house. Then, suddenly, Anderson comes back from the dead and brutally murders Bruhl. Mrs. Bruhl, reelng as she watches the death of her husband, collapses, dead, of a heart attack. Bruhl smiles wistfully as he gets up off the floor, very much alive.

He committed the perfect murder, or did he?

With his irksome wife in the cemetery, Bruhl then plunges into a relationship with his obvious lover Anderson, but remains jealous of his writing skills, that appear to dwarf his own. Their relationship is full of lies and sneaky maneuvers and Bruhl becomes incensed towards his new love as he did with his wife. Will he kill him, too? Will Anderson, looking around Bruhl’s large house as a new home, slay him?

Deathtrap, by Ira Levin, is undergoing a superb revival at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage, part of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s summer season, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It is a taut, scary play full of tension directed craftily by Aaron Mark. It has all the zing and fright that it had when it opened nearly forty years ago (and later became a movie in 1982). It is, with Sleuth and some of the Agatha Christie’s plays, one of the all-time whodunits. .

The mystery is full of 1970s references and the crowd chuckles when Merv Griffin is continually mentioned. Griffin, the popular ‘70s talk show host, creator of the Wheel of Fortune game show and casino owner, would smile up in heaven. What would a 25 year old today know about Merv Griffin. He/she probably would think it was a new computer hard drive.

The really interesting aspect of Deathtrap is the gay relationship between the two leading men. In 1978, two gay lovers still had to be kept under wraps by playwrights and directors. They are here in this revival of the play, too. You have no idea that the men are actually loves until Sidney makes a few references to it in the middle of act two. And, of course, you can figure it out towards the end of act one when the plot thickens.

There is no kissing, no touching beyond a hug or two and little intimate dialogue. In 1978, those were the rules of entertainment conduct (although the two lead actors in the movie did kiss once). Today, of course, the U.S, Supreme Court has upheld same sex marriage and theaters, movies and television are full of very openly gay couples. This does not bother very many people, either, because the times have certainly changed from 1978. If Levin wrote his play today, Mark and Clifford would kiss, hug and get married on stage.

You have to give playwright Levin credit, though, for using their relationship, as muted as it had to be, as the centerpiece of his play and the reason why the two men need to get rid of Mrs. Bruhl in such a way that nobody knows she was killed. He does it nicely. He wrote a good second act, full of twist and turns, that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat.

Director Mark gets wonderful performances from Gregg Edelman as Sidney Bruhl, the long suffering playwright, Tom Pecinka as Clifford, Allison Fraser as Mrs. Bruhl, Eric Hill as Sidney’s lawyer Porter Milgrim, and Debra Jo Rupp as the wacky psychic neighbor, Helga Ten Dorp. The rustic looking house set, by Randall Parsons, serves a fine playground for our murderers.

The Fitzpatrick, a gorgeous old wooden theater in Norman Rockwell’s home town, is one of four theaters in the Berkshire Theatre Group that produce plays each summer.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group. Scenic Design: Randall Parsons, Costumes; Wade Laboissonniere, Lighting: Alan Edwards, Sound: J. Hagenbuckle, Fight Choreographer: Tony Simotes. Deathtrap runs through July 25.  

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