Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Nosebleed and The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories
Knott masterfully devised the twisty narrative in Dial M for Murder, placing clues that could give the culprit away, that we may or may not notice, depending on how keenly observant we are, along with a few tricks that defy our powers of observation (such as what might or might not be in the pocket of a trench coat). It is a top-grade example of the genre, which explains why it has been frequently revised since its 1952 premiere runs, first in London and then on Broadway, and the popular 1954 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring two Oscar winning actors, Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.
The plot, set in mid-1950s London, concerns a caddish husband, Tony Wendice, who married his socialite wife Margot for her money, only to find she has been having a passionate affair with an American writer, a friend of Tony's no less. Tony fears that Margot will divorce him in favor of her lover, leaving him with no means to support his expensive lifestyle. Before that can occur, he conspires to have her murdered and inherit her fortune, enlisting a shady school acquaintance to do the dirty deed. Clever Tony has all the details worked out so that he will never be suspected of the plot, but things don't quite go according to plan. From that juncture, Tony faces a mad scramble to improvise new ways of throwing suspicion away from himself and onto others. This involves deflecting the procedural activities carried out by shrewd Police Inspector Hubbard.
Hatcher's reworking of the original play, first staged at Old Globe Theater in San Diego two years ago, makes a couple of major changes in the set-up. Most obvious, Margot's lover has been changed from the original play's Max (Mark in the movie) to Maxine Hadley. The setting is still the same, posh London in 1954, and if a lesbian affair might still raise eyebrows in some quarters today, it was absolutely abhorrent to most of society in that time and place. This makes all the more desperate Margot's efforts to keep the affair a secret, not only from her husband but from the world.
The second of Hatcher's big changes is that, while the original Tony was a retired professional tennis player, not projecting a great degree of ambition, Hatcher's Tony is a writer–or, more precisely, a failed writer. So, to appease Margo, he takes a job as a public relations man for a publishing house, and who should his new employer ask him to represent straight away but rising star, Maxine Hadley. Tony having failed at the profession in which his wife's lover is achieving success brings a professional as well as personal edge to his wife's infidelity.
David Andrew MacDonald is fabulous as scheming, amoral Tony, revealing something resembling glee in his evil plot to the audience, though not to the other characters on stage. MacDonald delivers Tony's quick-thinking and fiendish actions with aplomb, giving the audience the pleasure of enjoying his performance even as we find his character despicable. Gretchen Egolf is marvelous as Margot, stoically formal at the first, then showing shock and horror when jeopardy befalls, adopting a brutal reserve as she begins to see how the cards are stacked, and, finally, frantic to escape the trap that has ensnared her. At the end, even her clothes seem to hang loosely on her, a sign of the torment she has endured.
Lori Vega imbeds Maxine with a tough-customer crust and a New Yorker's accent (voice coach Keely Wolter does fine work with the entire cast) that makes her a formidable adversary for Tony, while still convincing us of her tenderness toward Margot. Peter Christian Hansen expertly strikes the right chord as an unprincipled and somewhat dull bloke caught over his head in Tony's muck. As the police inspector, Brian Thomas Abraham creates a sly character who never fully reveals what he is thinking. His tired and careless appearance briefly brought to mind the television police detective Colombo.
Tracy Brigden's sharp staging draws full attention to every detail we need to catch in order to keep up with the machinations of the plot. èBrigden also gives plenty of room for the humor imbedded in the script, and there are at least as many laughs as spine-chilling moments in the production. While the handsome living room of an upscale London flat designed by Walt Spangler spreads across the full breadth of the Wurtele Thrust stage, the play does not make use of the thrust's unique potential, functioning rather as a strictly capacious proscenium stage. That makes sense given that the play's taut plot requires there to be a limited number of ways in or out of that living room. As Brigden's first time directing at the Guthrie, where she recently was appointed senior artistic producer, it will be interesting to see her put the thrust to its full dynamic use in future work.
Valerie Thérse Bart's costumes capture the fashion sense of the 1950s, with its effort to restore glamour following the turmoil of the war years. Xavier Pierce has given the production a wonderful lighting design, darkening spaces to intensify the suspense, and John Gromada's sound design delivers the patter of footfalls in the hallway, the swoosh of falling rain dimly heard through the window, and of course the ominous ringing of the telephone.
Given the great success of Dial M for Murder, Frederick Knott's output of published work was very meager. He did stick to writing thrillers, following up with just two more plays, a forgotten middling success called Write Me a Murder that played on Broadway in 1961, and another hit, Wait Until Dark in 1966, quickly followed by its extremely successful film version. Too bad there weren't more, for Knott certainly had a talent for the genre, and there are not all that many excellent thrillers available for theaters to mount.
With Dial M for Murder, I feel we have one of the best of the lot, and the Guthrie has given it a gleaming, splendidly performed production that delivers the chills along with humor and wit. There is pleasure to be had in trying to think more quickly than the characters as they work through the labyrinth of deceit. Even if we know who did it, there is the unique delight of being in the throes of suspense.
Dial M for Murder runs through February 25, 2024, at Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the original by Frederick Knott; Director: Tracy Brigden; Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Valerie Thérse Bart; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design: John Gromada; Voice Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Intimacy: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Assistant Director: Vanessa Brooke Agnes; Stage Manager: Karl Alphonso; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom.
Cast: Brian Thomas Abraham (Inspector Hubbard), Gretchen Egolf (Margot Wendice), Peter Christian Hansen (Lesgate), David Andrew MacDonald (Tony Wendice), Lori Vega (Maxine Hadley).