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Theater on Long Island Is No Deathtrap for James Lloyd Reynolds

The lead in Ira Levin's comedy-thriller gets inside the mind of theater's most devilish, fictional playwright.

Ira Levin's Deathtrap holds an unbeaten record as the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway, where it ran from 1978 to 1982. The reasons for its having withstood the test of time are now on display at Northport's John W. Engeman Theater, where James Lloyd Reynolds has taken on the complex role of Sidney Bruhl, a successful playwright so desperate for another hit that he may actually kill for one. Reynolds chatted with TheaterMania about the advantage he has in understanding the mind of a playwright and the joy he experiences when listening to his audiences shriek in fear.

John Lloyd Reynolds as Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin's Deathtrap at John W. Engeman Theater.
(© Michael DeCristofaro)

At any given moment in Deathtrap Sidney might be cleverly lying to his counterparts onstage. What is the biggest challenge in keeping the layered stories straight?

The hardest thing has been keeping track of what Sidney is thinking at any given moment. I want to be present in the moment, but then I forget that what he's saying isn't actually true. But…you've got to play that it's truthful. Not to be cliché, but I guess the fun of it has been seeing how truthful I can be when I am actually being deceptive. And my god, what a load of dialogue there is with this role! It's the most that I've ever had. I took a chance and didn't pay much attention to the stage directions when learning my lines because there was just too much to learn with the dialogue alone. [Director] Richard Dolce was very happy that I did that [because] going into it I had an open mind about what could be done.

How do you think playwrights measure up in terms of Sidney's intensity and competitive nature?

First of all, I live with one [playwright Tim Acito, Zanna, Don't!, The Women of Brewster Place], so I come at this having that perspective. I think that for playwrights it's the most personal profession, more than it is for anyone else in theater. They should be protective! I think that Sidney's right on. I think if Sidney could have written whatever he wanted to without getting in trouble for it, he would have…I can certainly see an intense, competitive passion being in a playwright's nature.

Is there also a feeling of expectation for Sidney as a playwright?

[It's] got to be hard for anybody who creates anything. We certainly come to expect them to keep pumping out hits. I remember reading an article about Tony Kushner in which he said something like, "If anybody expects me to write Angels in America again, they're crazy. That's a once in a lifetime thing." That's got to be a terrifying feeling, when you're like, "Wow, I've hit my peak." You're proud of it of course, but then you have that feeling of desperation in not being able to repeat that.

What are your favorite responses from audiences in moments of suspense or fear in Deathtrap?

The best is this one big, surprise moment when you hear people react, and then you hear people laugh because they reacted. It's kind of rare these days, especially onstage, to have that reaction to anything. Or you'll hear some guy in the audience go, "F**k!" I'm always surprised at another moment in the show when people are like, "No! No way!" I guess we're doing our job — which is good.

John Lloyd Reynolds (left) as Sidney Bruhl and Loren Dunn as Clifford Anderson in Ira Levin's Deathtrap at John W. Engeman Theater.
(© Michael DeCristofaro)