Dial 'M' for Murder. Frederick Knott's Dial 'M' for Murder is one of those stylish, intricately plotted murder plays, though not a whodunit. We know early on that the villain is onetime tennis pro Tony, who wants his wife, Margot, murdered; we watch as he hires the man to do the job. The pleasure comes from the intricacies of the plot, our appreciation of Tony's clever machinations, and the questions we find ourselves entertaining about just how he's going to be stopped and innocent Margot saved. The script is talky, with lots and lots of exposition and only one really explosive action scene, which happens to take place in the half-dark. The play is dated, and some of the developments strain credulity, but Dial 'M' for Murder can still work as an entertaining evening, and it does — to some extent — in this production. Director Bernie Cardell, however, could still have encouraged his cast to play their roles with greater speed, energy and conviction. None of the actors seems to care a whole lot about anything, even when their world is unraveling. Do Margot and the American writer Max love each other? Is she staying with her husband just out of expedience? You can't tell. Margot's tone and body language are identical, whichever of the two men she's dealing with. This is a smooth and reasonably skilled production. What's lacking is the intensity that would make it exciting. Presented by Vintage Theatre through September 20, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-839-1361, www.vintagetheatre.com. Reviewed August 27.
Die! Mommie Die! It's been forever since we've had really good, outrageous, dirty-minded, over-the-top camp in Denver, so Die! Mommie Die! is a particular delight. Charles Busch's play is a spoof of such 1960s Gothic horror movies as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The heroine, Angela Arden, is an aging movie star of the Joan Crawford/Bette Davis type. The wife of idealistic movie director Sol Sussman, whose motto is "Make it big, give it class and leave 'em with a message," Angela's reduced to a life of shopping, bitchery and playing with her hugely well-endowed boy toy, Tony. Meanwhile, daughter Edith adores Sol in a squirmingly faux-innocent and highly sexual way, and cross-dressing son Lance has gone completely bonkers. There's also a corn-fritter-making, Bible-quoting maid, Bootsie Carp. With a crew like this, it's only natural that Angela should start entertaining ideas of murder. And then, thanks to plot turns involving poison, constipation and suppositories, LSD and a long-dead jealous sister, we find out that she isn't who she seems to be. Nick Sugar's production is slick, swift and clean. But it's Chris Whyde's performance as Angela that makes the entire evening so satisfying, a performance that functions more as an informed and loving homage than a crude sendup: This is an impersonation Crawford herself might have liked. Whyde is beautifully matched by Robert Wells as Sol Sussman; though the character is every bit as scheming and murderous as his wife, Wells also exudes a relaxed, lived-in humor that's appealing to watch and provides an excellent foil for everyone else's histrionics. There's no important social commentary here, no subtext to ponder. But if you're in the mood for a rip-roaring good time, this is the show to see. Presented by the Avenue Theater through October 10, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed August 13.
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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. First produced in 1984, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the play that propelled August Wilson to fame, and it has everything that makes the playwright great: eruptions of humor, rage, pettiness and affection, all given resonance by a broadly humanistic sense of history and context. The action takes place in 1920s Chicago, where Ma Rainey, mother of the blues, is about to record her signature song. Her four backup musicians gather at the studio to bicker, joke and rehearse. One of them, Levee, wants to move the music into a new and jazzier direction. Wilson illuminates the world of these blues musicians and their struggles within a white culture that values their artistry but not their personhood, but there is nothing didactic about his perspective. Swathed in fur, refusing to perform until she receives her ritual Coca-Cola, Ma Rainey is as petulant a diva as you can imagine. We soon realize that terrorizing her manager is pretty much the only real power she has: Despite her stardom, she can't even get a taxi outside the studio. The script has a discursive, slice-of-life feeling, as if we were simply watching people interact; the focus, as always with Wilson, is on language and storytelling. Though there's less of the playful music-for-music's-sake noodling around here than in the later plays, and almost none of the quasi-mystical or crazed philosopher stuff that makes some Wilson works sink right into your psyche and re-arrange your thought patterns, the play is transformative. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through October 17, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 720-857-8000, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed September 10.