Southern California’s Long Beach Playhouse opens 2008 with their latest production of The Deadly Game, James Yaffe’s adaptation of the Fredrick Durrenmatt novel Trapps.
Traveling salesman Howard Trapp (John Byrd) has literally flown out of the frying pan and into the fire, when his car gets stuck in a snow embankment on a remote mountain road in Switzerland. He seeks refuge from the winter storm at a home inhabited by several peculiar gentlemen who, nevertheless, seem more than obliged to help him or so it seems.
Trapp has found himself at the home of former Judge Emile Carpeau (Michael Buss). Carpeau does not have a phone, but does offer Trapp a meal, a stiff drink and a place to stay until the storm blows over. Trapp accepts and quickly learns that he has stumbled upon the men as they embark on their ritual festivities. Along with retired Judge Carpeau, retired Public Defender Bernard Laroque (Tony Grande) and retired Prosecutor Gustave Kummer (Christopher Spencer) amuse themselves with re-trying historical court cases in their parlor. At his hosts’ request, Trapp cheerfully joins the game as the defendant. Yet the moment Trapp agrees to play, Nicole (Daniella Dahmen), the pretty maid leaves and the creepy manservant Pierre (Adam Caplan) appears. Only as the evening progresses does the salesman realize he may have unwittingly entered into a game that is a matter of life and death.
The plot of this play does not leave much to he imagination. You know exactly where it’s going, even if our hero doesn’t until it is too late. What is left is to witness Gustave’s systematic character annihilation of Trapp, while Trapp tries desperately to justify his actions with his unconscious motives but only succeeds in digging himself in deeper.
It is, in fact Byrd and Spencer’s performances that are the real center of this production. The Gustave character badgers and prods at Trapp like an emotional jackhammer until he successful pries the answers he wants from his defendant’s private thoughts and out into the open. His predatory rants made me squirm in my own seat. Trapp possesses the classic fatal flaw of pride, which won’t allow him to lose an argument, much less a game. He simply lacks the ability to disengage when Gustave attacks him with conjecture. You can see him literally drowning in his own words. Well done on the part of both actors.
The production as a whole was unfortunately marred by the fact that several of the leads simply did not have their lines. Much of the intensity generated by Spencer was often lost the moment he hands the scene off to one of his fellow principal cast members. Heavily mannered performances and dialogue flubs did not allow me to be truly submerged in the drama of the story.
Dahmen, however, give a lovely innocent performance as Nicole, a maid who seems normal the surface but ultimately turns out to be a bit off her rocker, just like the other mansion’s inhabitants. Likewise, Caplan plays a wonderfully weird balancing act between creepy and comic relief, as the obviously abnormal houseboy and game’s bailiff, Pierre.
Perhaps The Deadly Game will find it’s sea leg in the coming weeks. This jaunt into the fantastic world of persecuting the criminal subconscious is an intriguing one. After all, in your minds we are all guilty of something, aren’t we.