August 13, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Thirty-six years ago tonight, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap played its 1,445th performance on Broadway, breaking the previously held record of Joseph Kesserling’s Arsenic and Old Lace as the longest running thriller. It can probably be debated whether Kesserling’s comedy is really a thriller, but Deathtrap was the real deal, prompting screams from the audience with its consistent shocks, twists and turns. It eventually ran for 1,793 performances, closing more than four years after it opened. There hasn’t been another straight play that has opened since which has run as long . That’s quite an achievement, but also an indictment when you consider that plays no longer have the staying power they once enjoyed, replaced in the long-run department entirely by musicals.
Deathtrap starred the British favorite John Wood (then a recent Tony Award winner for Tom Stoppard’s Travesties); Victor Garber, in what was the first time he originated a part in a play on Broadway (with many more to come over the years), and Marian Seldes, a veteran mainstay of the New York stage since her debut in 1947. In fact, Seldes had just come off a long run in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which she remained with its entire three years. Subsequently, she was to stay with Deathtrap for all of its four years — never missing one of its 1,793 performances, eventually landing her in the Guinness Book of World Records.
And yet, this genre that was once a Broadway staple has pretty much ceased to exist. Eight years prior to Deathtrap, Anthony Schaffer’s mystery Sleuth was a smash, winning the 1970 Tony Award for Best Play and running for three years. Logically, producers sought to capitalize on its success but nothing caught on. A series of attempts over the next few years failed miserably: Voices with Richard Kiley and Julie Harris ran a week and Gwen Verdon in Children! Children! ran only one night. In fact Deathtrap’s author Ira Levin had a serious misfire at mystery prior to his great success at the very same theatre (the Music Box) in 1973 with Veronica’s Room. Closing as quickly as these shows did, most of them were more scary for producers than audiences. That is until Deathtrap came along, which delighted everyone.
Since it closed in 1982, there have been attempts to resuscitate the thriller, but they all ended in quick death. Plays like Whodunnit (1982); Corpse! (1986): Accomplice (1990) and Solitary Confinement (1992) all came to untimely ends. Perhaps no one knows how to write them anymore. Prior to Deathtrap, Ira Levin had written the book and the screenplay of Rosemary’s Baby, both superb examples of how to keep a reader and movie goer in suspense. But Levin is gone now, and so is the thriller. Considering Deathtrap is a one-set play with five characters and presents the genre at its best, you would think that it would have had a revival by now, cheap as it is to produce. It’s attractive to actors, evidenced by the original production always managing to land name actors to play the lead role of Sidney Bruhl: first by John Wood, then later succeeded by John Cullum, Stacy Keach, Robert Reed and Farley Granger. The 1982 film version had Michael Caine as Sidney (opposite Christopher Reeve at the height of his Superman fame) and though directed by the usually capable Sidney Lumet, it didn’t receive anywhere near the recognition or acclaim the play did.
It should be noted that the Broadway production was helmed by Robert Moore, nominated for the Tony as Best Director five times. Sadly, he died in 1984, one of the many indispensable men of the theatre who succumbed to AIDS.
It’s my guess that producers don’t want to risk something that might feel tired or worse, that dreaded word “dated.” Perhaps what was once shocking in 1978 just isn’t that shocking in 2017, considering how explicit violence is in print, in film and on stage — not to mention in the real world itself. Perhaps going to the theatre to be scared is something that most people aren’t willing to spend $150 a ticket. A 2010 London production, that starred the eminent classical actor Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff was dismissed with a final comment from Michael Billington, the longtime British critic in The Guardian, as being representative of “ a once-flourishing but exhausted genre.”
Though reviled by critics, Misery — William Goldman’s 2015 adaptation of his classic novel and screenplay — did manage to end its limited run in the black due to the star power of Bruce Willis in his Broadway debut. I saw it, and it failed completely to draw any real suspense, save for the usual terrific performance from Laurie Metcalf in the role which won Kathy Bates her Oscar. Of course, there has been one prominent success in the years since Deathtrap that I haven’t mentioned, though it’s been playing Off-Broadway and not on. Warren Manzi’s Perfect Crime first opened in 1987 and quite surprisingly has never left the scene. Although moderately received by critics (and that’s putting it mildly), it somehow has attracted a tourist trade for the past thirty years, clocking in with 12,000 performances (roughly the same as Phantom of the Opera, which opened a year earlier). It has taken a lot of clever producing to get to this milestone, but do take into account that Perfect Crime has only played in houses that seat less than two hundred people. So comparisons to Phantom, which manages to fill many of its 1,645 seats every night, is a horse of a different color.
Of course, I have left out an entire country where mystery plays continue to thrive. The birthplace of Agatha Christie has seen the adaptation she penned of The Mousetrap, which she based on a short radio play that aired in 1930, situated in the West End continuously since it first opened in 1952. That makes for 65 years and the longest run of any play in the entire world. But why has it run so long?
It’s a mystery.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-SeatsHistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book