DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER Theatre Review
Group Rep’s production of Frederick Knott’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder is an old-fashioned, veddy British mystery. Many theatergoers will consider this murder most foul play to be deliciously enjoyable. But in a day and age of androids and iPhones, et al, which are not dialed, other viewers may find this two hour-long three-act play with two intermissions to be outdated and that the actors trod very creaky boards indeed at North Hollywood’s Lonny Chapman Theatre.
[PLOT SPOILER ALERTS!] The complex story unspools in the living room of the London apartment of retired tennis pro Tony Wendice (British actor Adam Jonas Segaller who is appropriately snide and snarky) and his adulterous wife Margot (Australian actress Carrie Schroeder). They are visited by American crime writer Max Halliday (Justin Waggle), with whom posh Margot had an affair. Unbeknownst to the secretive lovers, Tony has found out all about their sordid sextracurricular activities, and he hires a sketchy former classmate, Captain Lesgate (Michael Robb), to liquidate unsuspecting Margot.
Tony’s solicitation of homicide involves a very elaborate plan from whence this drama derives its catchy name. Certain ticket buyers may find sitting through Knotts’ byzantine details to be snooze worthy, while others are likely to be enthralled by the ingenuity of it all. Of course, by the time Act II rolls around, Hubbard – the inevitable English inspector (played with Brit panache by Doug Haverty) – enters to cleverly piece everything together and unravel Knott’s Gordian knot.
What makes this good fun is that in addition to the Sherlockian Haverty, Max – who writes mysteries for television shows and is well-played by Waggle – also uses his deductive powers crafted by writing crime shows for the tube to unlock what has really transpired. This adds a dash of insider show biz jokes to this Mulligan stew of a play – hey, we live in La La Land, after all. Also adding to the fun is Robb’s quirky depiction of the down-on-his-luck would-be hired killer, Lesgate the loser. With the aid of some deft stagecraft and special effects, the wannabe assassin meets his own fate. (Note: The more fainthearted among us should be aware that this play includes depictions of violence that more bloodthirsty spectators are likely to get a kick out of.)
Theater nerds and cinefiles will be interested in the interesting pedigree of Dial ‘M’, which is best known for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 motion picture adaptation, starring pre-Monte Carlo blonde beauty Grace Kelly as Margot, Ray Milland as Tony, Robert “Love that Bob!” Cummings as Halliday, John Williams as Hubbard and Anthony Dawson as the luckless Lesgate (film fans would probably recognize Dawson, who appeared in the first two 007 thrillers, including playing Bond villain Ernst Blofeld in 1963’s From Russia With Love). Those who love all things Alfred and are big time Hitchcock suckers will be interested to know that the film version was shot in 3-D, although it was not widely released in that process by Warner Bros. (FYI, in the theatrical Dial ‘M’ rendition at the Lonny Chapman, all of the thespians actually do appear onstage in three dimensions.)
However, before the Master of Suspense’s movie, there was actually another screen version – on BBC television. This TV production was followed by a play that opened in London in June, 1952. In 1966, another Knott crime drama with a knotty plot opened on Broadway, Wait Until Dark, with Lee Remick starring as blind Susy Hendrix in the play directed by Arthur Penn. Of course, Audrey Hepburn rather memorably starred in the 1967 movie version, helmed by Terence Young, who directed the first three James Bond flicks.
Now here’s the Fun Fact of this review, fans: While Young did not direct the fourth 007 movie, Goldfinger, Honor Blackman – who portrayed the improbably named Bond girl and pilot Pussy Galore in that 1964 classic – also played Susy Hendrix in the 1966 stage production of Wait Until Dark at London’s West End. “Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”
Sir Walter Scott’s line could, but of course, well describe the convolutions of Dial ‘M’ for Murder’s intricate plot. But those who may dismiss Knott’s play as an old chestnut should stop to consider the drama’s underlying sexual politics, worthy of Freudian analysis. Margot appears to have had her fling with Max to get back at and as a reaction to Tony’s previous tennis bum lifestyle and his overbearing, male chauvinist treatment of her. Pay close attention and you’ll hear how manipulative and controlling Tony is of his wife, and how this would rile any self respecting human being.
[EVEN MORE DESPICABLE PLOT SPOILERS!] Nevertheless, it is the proverbial “little woman” who commits infidelity and the play’s only killing. So Margot is not as helpless or – as Carrie Schroeder put it to me backstage during the post-premiere reception – “doe-eyed” as one may expect. Schroeder’s finely honed, understated performance brings this out, as tuned in ticket buyers dial ‘M’ – for Margot, who may be straight out Fargo.
Bruce Kimmel adeptly directs his ensemble, who all deliver solid performances for three acts in J. Kent Inasy’s set, which realistically materializes a London flat on the other side of the theater’s fourth wall, with incidental music by Grant Geissman. Audiences who go expecting a tried and true, traditionally-rendered British mystery full of genre conventions won’t be disappointed and will be dialing ‘E’ for escapist entertainment. If this is your vintage cup of tea, this play will simply murder you.
Dial ‘M’ for Murder is being presented by the Group Rep Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through August 13 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601. For more info DIAL: (818)763-5990; www.theGrouprep.com.
As part of the “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the Russian Revolution’s centennial film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting V.I. Pudovkin’s revolutionary classic Storm Over Asia on Friday, 7:30 p.m., July 28, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. For info: [email protected].Click here for reuse options!
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