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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Dial M for Murder
Desert Stages Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of The Wizard of Oz, Tribes and August: Osage County


Matt Newhard
Frederick Knott wrote two of the most famous thrillers for the theatre, the 1952 Dial M for Murder and 1966 Wait Until Dark. Both plays are receiving productions in the Phoenix area this season and first up is a perfectly thrilling production of Dial M at Desert Stages Theatre.

A flawlessly conceived suspense thriller is very hard to realize. Most likely, that's why there are so few that have achieved any form of success. Realistic situations and characters, a conceivable set-up for the murder and a sufficient number of plot twists to keep the audience on the edge of their seats are required. Knott was able to come up with the characters, set-up and plenty of twists for his first successful thriller, and it was so well received that Knott was also hired to adapt the play and write the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock directed 1954 film version.

Dial M for Murder is set in 1950s London. When Tony Wendice suspects his wealthy wife Margot of having an affair with American mystery writer Max Halliday he sets a plan in motion to murder her. Tony blackmails a former college friend to murder Margot while Tony is at a dinner with Max, thereby giving Tony an airtight alibi. Of course, not everything goes according to plan.

Director Virginia Olivieri, who also plays Margot, does an excellent job with her direction of this one-set murder drama. She has assembled a capable cast to pull off the twists and turns of the plot, never letting the dialogue-heavy scenes bog the play down, while allowing for plenty of suspenseful moments, especially during the thrilling murder scene. She also uses the small stage quite effectively, staging the action throughout the entire space.

As Tony, Matt Newhard displays the perfect amount of diabolical cunning, hidden underneath a cool exterior, not only getting across a character who is capable of pulling off this murder but also effectively showing us someone who quickly thinks on his feet when things go wrong. Newhard is suave and, as Tony, exudes the necessary charm to influence both Margot and Captain Lesgate, the college mate he's blackmailing, to do whatever he says. It is a lovely nuanced performance with the appropriate delivery of the requisite mischievous grin and facial expressions when things are going Tony's way.

Olivieri is lovely as Margot. Her English accent is impeccable, the way she portrays Margot in her interactions with the other characters, especially with Max, whom we clearly believe she is still in love with, are nicely delivered, and her ability to show fear and uncertainty all tie in perfectly with her character's confusion about what is transpiring around her.

As the American mystery writer Max, Rick Davis displays the appropriate amount of concern and ambiguity about the events that unfold throughout the play. However, he and Michael LeSueur, who plays Lesgate, occasionally overact just a bit, but only briefly in a few of the scenes that require a higher level of intensity. But those moments are my only quibbles in this otherwise lovely directed production and they never detract from the overall affect. Davis also serves as fight director for the play and he delivers a very chilling and suspenseful murder scene.

Roger Prenger is Inspector Hubbard who comes to investigate the events related to the murder and Prenger gets every nuance of this character perfectly. He has a soft tone in his delivery, which works perfectly for a proper Englishmen who just happens to also be an Inspector. He also matches Newhard in his ability to use his face, specifically his eyebrows, mouth and moustache, to show us how his character is thinking through the various possible scenarios of the murder. It is a performance so effective that he practically steals every scene he is in.

Creative elements are expertly achieved with a fairly elaborate set design by Douglas Clarke that includes a small yet elegant drawing room with gold stamped wallpaper, a nicely designed fireplace, and period perfect moldings and wainscoting. There is also a telephone booth that is creatively incorporated into the set. Lighting designer Brent Coatney does a nice job, especially during the shadowy murder scene. Tamara Treat's costumes are sublime with lovely dresses and a nightgown for Margot and smashing hat, suits and vests for the men. Olivieri and Rebecca Wierman's hair and make-up designs are also top notch with Olivieri looking exactly like a 1950s era London woman with every hair perfectly in place and her face looking flawless.

If you're a fan of well-crafted murder thrillers, or just looking for a fun theatrical experience, I highly recommend the well-directed and acted Dial M for Murder at Desert Stages. If you've seen the film and are already familiar with the many plot twists, the joy of seeing the show live with all of the intrigue and excitement of the murder playing out in front of you, with actors who know how to embody these characters, adds a level of excitement. Virginia Olivieri and her cast have done an excellent job in bringing this classic suspense thriller to life.

The Desert Stages production of Dial M for Murder runs through March 9, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664

Knott's other thriller, Wait Until Dark, is also being produced in the Valley this March with a production at Mesa Encore Theatre that runs from March 7th to the 23rd. Information can be found at mesaencoretheatre.com.

Director: Virginia Olivieri
1st Production Assistant: Rebecca Wierman
2nd Production Assistant: Leslie A. Smith
Stage Manager: Keaton Honaker
Set Designer: Douglas Clarke
Set Construction: Brent Coatney, Paul Filan, Mark Holden, Warren Lueker, John Michelet, Damion Westbrook
Scenic Artists: Kristin Barton, Paul Filan, Robin Oden
Lighting Designer: Brent Coatney
Sound Designer: Chris Caracciolo
Sound and Lights: Seth Griego
Fight Coordinator: Rick Davis Costume Designer: Tamara Treat
Costume Mistress: Toni Hansen
Prop Master: Brent Coatney
Hair/Makeup Designers: Virginia Olivieri, Rebecca Wierman

Cast:
Tony Wendice: Matt Newhard Margot Wendice: Virginia Olivieri Max Halliday: Rick Davis Captain Lesgate: Michael LeSueur Inspector Hubbard: Roger Prenger Police Officer Thompson: Keaton Honaker


Photo: Heather Butcher/Desert Stages Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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