by Hugh Hunter
“The Deadly Game” is a suspense-thriller you will never forget. Now playing at Stagecrafters, it is such a novel blend of elements you feel you are watching something that is wholly original.
“The Deadly Game” is an adaptation by James Yaffe of “The Breakdown” (1956), a novella by Swiss writer Friedrich Duerrenmatt. It centers around Howard Trapp, an American salesman who travels to Europe on a business deal.
Stranded by a snowstorm, Trapp seeks refuge in a Swiss chalet where he encounters some old European judicial workers: prosecutor (Paul Diferdinando), defense attorney (Nick Lutwyche), judge (Jack Roe) and a doddering old man (Mike Mogar).
Bored and resentful over their enforced retirement, the Europeans amuse themselves by reenacting famous trials of history — Socrates, Saint Joan of Arc and the like. But when Trapp drops in, they get the chance to make a bit of history themselves.
The group invites Trapp to participate in a “parlor game” in which Trapp himself will be put on trial. Fun loving, cocky Trapp is game for anything, but he cannot think of any crime he has committed. The prosecutor sets out to prove him wrong.
All action takes place inside the large wooden chalet (set décor, Yaga Brady). Lighting effects enhance the drama and the absurdity of the “trial” (lighting Gilbert Todd), and tension quickens as director Brady keeps a tight focus on the prosecutor and Trapp.
Diferdinando portrays a doggedly insistent prosecutor. His pacing is full of purpose as he ferrets out information from Trapp, pressing forward with such emotional momentum you scarcely notice that the prosecutor’s concluding arguments are farcically illogical.
Paul McNair is brilliant as the hapless American. What makes Trapp so funny is his vulgarity that he himself cannot see. But instead of being offensive, Trapp seems harmlessly comic, and his escalating bewilderment during the trial is something to behold.
Trapp slowly learns. The cameo roles of Nicole (Ana-Maria Arkan), a subtly flirty French maid; Pierre (Greg Pronko), a creepy manservant; and Helen (Mary Ann Domanska), Trapp’s estranged wife, all help flesh out a dramatic scenario that is shot through with comic irony. Author Friedrich Duerrenmatt is a past-master of the parable. Even as “The Deadly Game” grips you at the storytelling level, layers of meaning play under the surface.
In this work there is the palpable satire of the court system where nothing serious is ever said. What is important to these particular jurists is how you play the game, an approach to justice rooted in general misanthropy.
The play is also a portrait of post-war Europe. Salesman Trapp is the triumphant American, brash and falsely self-confident (a nod to Arthur Miller perhaps). The trial itself can be seen as a showdown between American ignorance and European decadence.
“The Deadly Game” is quite an experience, a memorable tour de force that manages to gracefully mix together the diverse genres of suspense thriller with satire. And that is not easy to do.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “The Deadly Game” will run through April 29. Reservations available at 215-247-9913.