Dial M For Murder
When the best known actor in St. Louis goes to direct at a lovely theater nearer to Kansas City, it's time for a critic's road trip.
Joneal Joplin has done a fascinating job with the great Frederick Knott mystery at the Lyceum in Arrow Rock, MO. The five performers on stage lay out as much character as conflict or clue, to quickly establish the moodiness beneath the style of 1950's London.
Randy B. Winder gives us a sitting room that's fashionably red, red, red from floor to ceiling, and shows a nice sense of humor when a murdered body is gently draped in a wedding-ring quilt. In its quiet, tense moments (and there are many) we can well imagine having one foot in Hell, or at least on the slaughterhouse floor.
Malcolm Madera is the boyish writer who loves a married woman. And by the third act, when she's about to be hanged by the neck, he looks like he's been through hell himself. It is shocking to see the level of torment that could exist in the character, utilizing barely contained looks and manners, as the real villain seemed likely to escape.
Such are the virtues of letting a sage like Mr. Joplin direct. The characters must be thoroughly real to him, and it gives him a real advantage. Where Alfred Hitchcock had the magic of a camera to follow Grace Kelly on her trip to the gallows, Mr. Joplin gives us one hundred very small tics and gestures to keep our minds focused on the broader lovers' triangle. And still we quiver with tension as the Knott script goes through its long list of surprises.
Mr. Joplin's porcelain flower is Elena Gronlund (as Margot Wendice) and, though she doesn't get much latitude for action, we still feel her sense of violation, once she's had her first life-and-death encounter on stage. The sassy pink cocktail dress she wears in act one is our most significant clue to her delightful side, and Ms. Gronlund does her best to make it flair out in eight or ten carefree turns around Mr. Madera before going to grief in act two. Thankless times were these, for a damsel in distress.
Greg Longenhagen is spiffy as the meticulous psychopath, Tony Wendice. He could be described as a much handsomer Bob Hoskins, with a playful dash of Robert Walker Sr. (as the out-for-a-thrill killer in Strangers On A Train). And perhaps because he is fortunate enough to have Mr. Joplin as his director, he can afford to be as oblique as Chekov in his machinations. We hold our breath as we watch him catching others in their half-truths, and wiping away all fingerprints, until his plans fall apart like a house of cards at the final blackout. It's delicious to watch.
The outsiders in this lovers' triangle are Christopher J. Schmidt as Swann/Lesgate, the shady character dialed up for murder; and Richert Easley as the soft-spoken chief inspector. Mr. Schmidt is by far the most charming and endearing person in the play, which makes his scene of entrapment (by Mr. Longenhagen) unexpectedly painful to watch; where Hitchcock went for an unlikable character here, Mr. Joplin adds a surprising new dimension as a very charming low-level con-man is forced into a deal with the devil.
You could hear a pin just contemplating its drop as Mr. Easley makes his first solo tour of the scene as the chief inspector. So sanguinely brought to life is this play that the audience seems to be collectively biting down on its tongue to keep from blabbing the whole story as he drifts from one drop of blood to the next. Mr. Easley is funny and complex, testing each suspect without their (or even our) quite knowing it. Even if we do know where all this is going, Mr. Easley masters such subtlety in the role (and Mr. Joplin has so trained our eyes to watch) that we gladly follow the chase.
I may have broken a record for the use of parentheses here, but it all goes to show the layers and levels of good theater. Dial M ran through August 27, 2006, but you can still catch Mr. Longenhagen and Mr. Easley in the next life in Tuesdays With Morrie from September 27 to October 8 at this gem of a theater.
The Lyceum Theatre is in Arrow Rock MO, 13 miles north of I-70, just off state highway 41 at mile-marker 98. The town boasts a string of bed and breakfasts', about a hundred miles east of Kansas City. Call (660) 837-3311 or visit them online at www.lyceumtheatre.org.