‘Deathtrap’ canceled after objections to nudity and gay content

A Los Angeles revival of Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” has been canceled after the estate of the late author expressed objections to the use of nudity and some of the production’s gay content. The engagement, which was supposed to have begun September at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, was to be a remounting of the staging that ran at the center in the spring.

Levin’s estate revoked permission to stage the murder story, citing an instance of nudity that occurs near the end of first act in the center’s staging, according to Jon Imparato, a producer of the revival. In one scene of the production, the character of Clifford, a young, aspiring writer with shady motives, disrobes and reveals his backside to the audience. Imparato said the nudity lasts for approximately 30 seconds.

The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center said it sent an email to the Levin estate attempting to appeal the decision. The center then received a cease-and-desist notice from the estate, telling them to halt the production.


After another appeal, the center said it was granted permission to produce the play but under the condition that the staging would not include any behavior indicating a physical relationship between Clifford and his older male mentor, Sidney.

The center then decided to call off the production. “No director could adhere to these restrictions. They were so limiting,” said Imparato.

Levin’s estate is managed by his three sons, Adam, Jared and Nicolas. The estate did not respond to requests for comment. Imparato said the theater had arranged to produce the play through Dramatists Play Service, which acts as an intermediary between theaters and playwrights. A representative for Dramatists Play Service declined to comment.

Levin, who died in 2007, is the author of such bestselling novels as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives.” “Deathtrap” debuted in 1978 on Broadway, where it became a box office hit and ran for more than four years. The play is frequently revived in regional theaters throughout the world and was made into a successful movie starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.

Ken Sawyer, who directed the production at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, said that he interpreted the relationship between Clifford and Sidney as a sexual one. He said his staging featured some kissing and embracing between the male protagonists. “They behave like any ordinary couple would.”

He described the one scene of nudity as “innocuous. They [the estate] are making a big deal out of relatively little.”

“Deathtrap” is a dark, twisty murder story set in the East Coast literary world. Sidney, an accomplished playwright who can’t seem to get out of a creative rut, befriends Clifford, a young dramatist with big aspirations. One day, Sidney plots to murder Clifford and steal his work, but a series of plot twists reveal that his plan is more complicated than it initially appeared.

It isn’t unusual for literary estates to exercise this kind of veto power, according to Madeline Puzo, dean of the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

“Estates tend to be conservative regarding directorial interpretation. They see themselves as guardians of an artist’s legacy.”

Samuel Beckett, the famed Irish playwright, was notoriously protective of his works. After his death, his estate has attempted to stop a number of non-traditional productions, including a staging of “Waiting for Godot” set in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

In the case of “Deathtrap,” the relationship between the two male protagonists has often been construed as homosexual. The 1982 film adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet, features a romantic kiss between Caine and Reeve.

“It is a gay relationship, but it’s a tacit one,” said Martin Andrucki, a professor of theater at Bates College in Maine.

Some reviews of the recent L.A. production, including one that ran in The Times, noted the instance of male nudity. A review in Backstage described the nudity as “gratuitous” and said that it does a “disservice to the play.”

Actor Burt Grinstead, who played Clifford, said that the nudity wasn’t gratuitous. He said that he and the creative team discussed at length the nature of the central relationship and the scene where he is required to disrobe.

He said the use of nudity was “appropriate for the production and the play. As an actor, I felt very comfortable with what we did.”

[Updated: a previous version of this post stated that “Deathtrap” was to begin in August. In fact, the staging was scheduled for September.]


Theater review: ‘Deathtrap’ at the Davidson-Valentini Theatre

Obituary: Ira Levin, 78; his novels include ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ‘Stepford Wives’