I mainly knew of Dial “M” for Murder because of growing up viewing the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly; I went through all of the Hitchcock films before getting out of grade school. The film is considered second tier Hitchcock, still better than first rate most anyone else, and I had always enjoyed it. The Frederick Knott play from which the film was adapted premiered on Broadway in the fall of 1952 and ran for nearly a year and a half; it closed just a few months before the film version was released. I saw the restored film projected in its original 3-D at the Wexner Center for the Arts this past March, so I had the story fresh in my mind when I attended the Weathervane Playhouse production of Dial “M” for Murder this past weekend. I’ll admit that I was tempted not to go as I had just seen the film again, and that would’ve been a mistake; Dial “M” for Murder perhaps works better as a play, and this is a solid production with its own flavor different from the film.
The story concerns how Tony Wendice, a former tennis pro, coerces a former classmate, Captain “Lesgate” (he has several names we find out), into murdering his adultering wife, Margot. You see, Tony knows about the affair Margot has been carrying on with television writer Max Halliday, and he knows enough about his former school chum to make him compliant in the idea of murder. However, Tony doesn’t plan on how things end up turning out, or that a certain Inspector Hubbard may hold the key (no pun intended) to unraveling the plot.
Patrick Clements plays Tony as all suave and sly, almost too slick to believe. He looks remarkably like Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, and I was glad to see him as the lead after his clowning around in The Pajama Game a few weeks back. His interpretation was a little too slippery for me as he has to come off as genuinely affectionate towards his wife and above suspicion for the piece to fully work, not like a used car salesman with some nefarious clauses hidden in the fine print. Molly Griggs is Margot, closely hewing to Grace Kelly’s interpretation though perhaps even more vulnerable; her cultured accent is particularly good, and she wears her complicated hairstyle with confidence. Clay Singer, who was Sid to Molly’s Babe in the aforementioned The Pajama Game, plays her beau again as Max Halliday, making the most out of the slight part. Layne Roate is poor, coerced Captain Lesgate, coming off as a real ne’er-do-well while also owning it. Jason Samples as Inspector Hubbard is adept at bringing the audience along to follow his train of thought, quite important in the resolution of this piece. The actor who played the role in the film confused me when I first saw it, but Jason’s lines sprout naturally as he takes in the scene; he genuinely seems to care that the audience be along with him for the ride.
The entire play takes place in the Wendice apartment, elaborately designed by Jeremy Hollis; it is perhaps the most important character in the play. The apartment looks lived in, albeit by affluent tenants, and the requisite window, desk, and doors that open out into the hall are all there as needed by the plot. Great attention appears to have been played in decorating the set as well and including props where they would naturally be found, not as obvious instruments needed for the script. Director Tim Browning and lighting designer Jennifer Sansfacon work well together in creating a tense murder scene with shards of light piecing the outline of the double doors that slowly open to reveal Layne entering the apartment with murder on his mind. The scene is stylish in a way that would only work on stage, and the audience didn’t dare breathe during it.
I will say that the best place to sit for this production is in the center section, even if you’re in the back rows. I moved to the front right for the second half of the show and missed seeing the faces of the actors during some critical moments. Another patron commented that the desk and chair blocked her view when she was seated in the left section, so aim for as close to the center as you can.
There were a few snafus at the performance I attended, though I was told they they only occurred at that Saturday matinee. There is a scene in the first act that requires both doors to the apartment be open so that the placement of a certain key is visible, but this was hidden from most of the audience because one door remained shut, apparently locked in error. The murder scene also played out a bit awkwardly as the scissors fell off of the desk to the floor during the struggle. I have to hand it to Molly and Layne for integrating into their performance as well as they did; Molly lunged off the desk for those scissors with a determination that made me chuckle. I knew the play couldn’t go on unless she got them to defend herself and she surely knew it too, but I’m sure the audience didn’t notice; they were too wrapped up in the proceedings at full attention to notice anything that may have been off.
For someone quite familiar with the movie, I didn’t expect the play to be so enjoyable or engaging. Some of the plot points even played out better in this setting, as I think it was easier to follow just where Tony went awry in his plans in the play. It can’t be easy to stage such a play when a popular film version exists, but director Tim Browning and his fine ensemble have succeeded in making it stand proudly on its own quite capable feet.
*** out of ****
Dial “M” for Murder continues through to July 25th at the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/dial-m-murder/