It's impossible to beat Alfred Hitchcock at his own game. Nobody could remake Dial "M" for Murder as a movie and make it work. But Frederick Knott's 1950s crime play still crackles oddly on the stage. And Hunger Artists' stylish production, though intermittently absurd, translates film-noir technique gracefully to the theater.
The story concerns a spoiled, mean-spirited English ex-tennis champion who married for money and discovers that while he led the selfish libertine life on the tournament circuit, his unhappy wife had a brief fling with an American mystery writer out of sheer desperation. As the play opens, we learn that Tennis Tony has been a model husband for a whole year--ever since wife Margot discovered a letter from her ex-lover, Max, missing from her purse. The rest of us put two and two together quickly, but Margot can't get past "three"--the triangle she created and now regrets. Too late, sister.
Jealous, cruel and shrewd, Tony masterminds an imaginative plot to have his wife murdered by an old acquaintance who went bad in grammar school. But the lady proves to have more guts than brains, and she foils her assassin. With the help of the ex-lover's letter, Tony extemporizes a frameup, and his wife is convicted of the murder of the would-be assassin. How will Max and the police inspector assigned to the case liberate the lady from this mess?
In the Fifties, people still believed that crime doesn't pay. So those wonderful old crime stories always ended with the bad guys getting caught (or killed). Since you already know how villainy will be rewarded, the fun lies in watching the writer work out the convolutions--how the clever miscreant will be outfoxed by the law.
All the Hunger Artists actors have trouble with the English accent--it wasn't necessary and probably should have been dropped altogether. But aside from that unfortunate distraction, some of these performances are complex and involving. Phillip Luna gives Tony a slippery charm that comes across as moral idiocy. According to the crime genre of this period, the cleverer the criminal, the more distorted his entire value system, and Luna makes us feel that distortion.
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TJ Geist sails through Margot's urbane housewife-mistress bit like a champ, turning fragile and hysterical at the appropriate moments and finally brave and bright at the end. Matt Cohen easily persuades us that Max is both a mystery writer and a cool love interest. Stephen Kramer as the murderous Captain Lesgate reeks with thinly disguised decadence, and Curt Pesicka is appropriately cold and calculating as the Inspector.
Of course, Dial "M" is still a museum piece, and, interestingly enough, what saves this show from being hopelessly dated is its highly dated design. All that extremely ugly Fifties furniture with its bizarre angles represents troubled states of mind. The costumes plunge the viewer back to the postwar era quickly and thoroughly. Thanks to Jeremy Cole's inventive lighting, the characters cast huge shadows--shadows that loom spookily over the whole set. As the characters become agitated or depressed, the lighting changes subtly to conform to their emotional states. One doesn't need to suspend one's disbelief at all to enjoy the stagecraft here.
As old-fashioned and clunky as it is, Dial "M" still twists the knife effectively.