Dial ‘M’ for Murder is not so much a “whodunit” as a “will-he-get-away-with it” thriller. But it kept audiences guessing in the early 1950s in London’s West End and later on Broadway. And it still works.
Taking Frederick Knott’s stage play, Alfred Hitchcock successfully adapted it for the big screen in 1954 (starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Bob Cummings) and the play has never been too far away from the boards ever since. Olney Theatre Center has revived it in a classy new production that maintains the play’s qualities of escapist entertainment in a homicidal vein.
I must confess the last time I saw Dial ‘M’ was at a summer run of Hitchcock films at a second run movie house 30 years ago. The play’s twists and turns were not fresh in my mind so I could sit back and enjoy the thrill ride at Olney this past weekend. Hopefully, it has been a while for you as well as the element of surprise certainly works in the play’s favor.
Thriller plays like this used to be theatre’s bread and butter – a new mystery or thriller premiered just about every season for decades. Knott wrote two others, Wait Until Dark being the more famous of the trio. Not many come along now, so it is a pleasure to get to revisit a rich chestnut like this every once in a while.
The good news is Mr. Knott’s murderous plot holds up remarkably well and the Olney production, as directed by Jason King Jones, is briskly paced, expertly cast, and looks like a million bucks.
Knott keeps things relatively simple while still providing a puzzle for the inevitable detective to solve. If you remember “Columbo” from back in the 1970s or Sunday Mystery Movies, this plays works much the same way: the audience is in on the perpetrator from the beginning.
The play centers around former tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ashley Smith) who has married his wife Margot for her money and hatches a plan to have her killed in their upscale London apartment. And old admirer has reentered Margot’s (Nisi Sturgis)life, the American crime novelist Max Halliday (Cameron McNary) and they have rekindled their relationship. Part of Wendice’s plan is to involve a shady old school chum (James Konicek) in the plan for Margot’s murder. Amorous letters, switched latch keys, loads of cash, and other clues and red herrings are scattered about for the audience to ponder and the detective to examine. After the premeditated murder goes awry, the fun of Dial ‘M’ is to see how the cat and mouse game plays out and to watch Tony squirm more and more as the proverbial noose slowly gets tightened.
King Jones keeps things moving, allowing the urbane characters and machinations of plot to breeze along. He has assembled a cast that believably captures the upper crust British society types and the sole American novelist. Smith, as Tony, oozes charm with just the right dash of menace when the other characters are not looking. As the lovely and sophisticated Margot, Sturgis balances the sweet natured and dutiful wife with the scared and sensitive victim. Sturgis also handles the torn nature of Margot’s relationship with Tony and her would-be lover Max with a light touch that works well for the play. As Max, Cameron McNary provides solid support to Margot. And Konicek makes the most of his brief stage time as the mysterious Captain Lesgate.
Last but certainly not least, what is a murder plot without the detective on the scene to sort through the clues and ask all the right questions? Donning the trenchcoat of Inspector Hubbard is a familiar face to Olney audiences, Alan Wade. Wade’s history with Olney goes as far back as 1972, returning many times during his full career. As Hubbard, Wade is a sea of calm and British restraint, while also being a wily opponent to Smith’s murderous Wendice. Wade’s Hubbard is methodical and is a wonder to watch as you see his wheels turning over the investigation. The entire cast is well matched to evoke the time period and just the right tone for the old-style thriller to come to life.
The characters certainly have wonderful setting in which to plot and plan a murder. Scenic designer Charles Calvert has provided an impressive London apartment, detailed, with perfect period furniture and other accents, down to the bric-a-brac on the shelves. I think Grace Kelly would have been right at home. Sonya Dowhaluk’s lighting design is both subtle and effective at punctuating the moments of elevated tension and nocturnal danger. Coupled with the sound design by Roc Lee – complete with musical stings at crucial moments – the elements all come together perfectly to enhance the sense of mystery. The actors are also provided with couture and tailored suits by costume designer Seth Gilbert which help place them in the understated elegance of British society of the mid-1950s.
When the play ended I wondered why more thrillers aren’t being produced today. Perhaps we are so saturated with ramped-up police procedural shows that focus on psychological motivations or the minutiae of DNA evidence, writers and producers have lost sight of the venerable whodunit genre. While I await a good new thriller to come along, I will look for new productions of these classics, and I suggest you dial this one up.
Dial ‘M’ for Murder by Frederick Knott . Director: Jason King Jones . Featuring James Konicek, Cameron McNary, Ashley Smith, Nisi Sturgis, and Alan Wade . Scenic design: Charles Calvert . Lighting design: Sonya Dowhaluk . Costume design: Seth Gilbert . Sound design: Roc Lee . Fight Choreography: Casey Kaleba . Production stage manager: Elizabeth Ribar . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jeff Walker