The company producing Dial 'M' for Murder is a smooth operator
Frederick Knott's Dial 'M' for Murder started in the early 1950s as a ninety-minute BBC production, enjoyed successful West End and Broadway runs, and eventually became a celebrated Alfred Hitchcock movie. It's one of those stylish, intricately plotted murder plays, though not a whodunit. We know early on that the villain is one-time 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 – even the limited credulity required to enjoy drama in this genre. I'm not familiar with 1952 criminal law in England, but I doubt anyone would have been convicted of murder on only the slightest and most circumstantial evidence, then sentenced to almost-instant execution. All the fiddly talk about keys and bank notes gets monotonous, and it's impossible to swallow the plot point involving two near-identical raincoats and one character walking off with the other's.
But Dial 'M' for Murder can still work as an entertaining evening for those who enjoy the soothing, familiar tropes of the so-civilized British detective story, and it does work to some extent in this Vintage Theatre production. We enjoy plumbing the depths of Tony's caddishness and hoping for his comeuppance; we worry about poor, wronged Margot. The action is set in Maida Vale, an affluent suburb of London. The set, with its beautiful Pulaski desk (offered for sale in the program), looks authentic, the actors periodically attain the requisite elegance, and all of them — with the obvious exception of Andy Lacerte as the American Max, Margot's lover — do well with the English accent.
Character isn't central here; all of these people are types. But director Bernie Cardell should still have encouraged his cast to play their roles with greater speed, energy and conviction. Robert Kramer's performance as Tony is the best, and Kramer generally keeps the evening aloft, though he could be a touch more charismatic. Stacy Riley is an elegant Margot and sweetly emotional when necessary, but she has a soft, lightweight quality that would probably register better on film than on stage. Lacerte is a warmly pleasant Max. But none of them seems to care a whole lot about anything, even when their world is unraveling. Do Max and Margot, whom we first encounter in a passionate clinch, love each other? Is she only staying with Tony out of expedience and a sense of duty, or does she have feelings for him? And doesn't it make Margot at all suspicious that Tony doesn't mind her going off with her former lover to dinner or the theater? Is she just assuming he's behaving as any worldly and civilized Englishman would? I can't tell. Margot's tone and body language are identical, no matter which of the two men she's dealing with. And Max is singularly unflapped by her perilous plight: Even while he's concocting a scheme to save her, Lacerte remains remarkably mellow.
Perhaps the biggest problem is Rita Broderick's turn in the written-for-a-man role of police inspector. Broderick doesn't seem to have figured out who she's playing. There are moments when she appears to be going for a Columbo effect, fumbling with bits of paper and acting floored while the cunning brain works away in secret, but she doesn't stick with that interpretation for more than a few seconds at a time. And there isn't any other.
Vintage Theatre specializes in audience-pleasing, non-challenging oldies, and, judging from this production, does them with a certain smoothness and skill. What's lacking is the intensity that would make this production truly exciting.
Dial 'M' for Murder
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