Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
One problem with a play like Dial M for Murder is that if you have seen it, or the film, and remember the intricate workings of its murder scheme gone afoul, you will miss the element of surprise which is one of its great joys. However, there is still pleasure to be had in the sterling performances by the cast of five actors, and adept staging by Brian Columbus. And if you don't know the plot in advance or have forgotten it, well, then the game is afoot!
Former English tennis star Tony Wendice has married wealthy socialite Margot for her money and the security of being able to maintain an elegant lifestyle once he is no longer able to earn large sums on the courts. Margot, for her part, has had an affair with an American writer of crime stories, Max Halliday. A year before, Margot broke off the affair in an effort to focus on making her disappointing marriage work. However, unknown to her, Tony has already discovered the affair. With no more interest in Margot, but unprepared to give up her wealth, he plots her murder, just as Max turns up again at their London flat. Tony thinks through everything, including how to ensnare an old college acquaintance into taking part, yet things go awry (otherwise it would be a very short play). But crafty Tony is able to pivot and stay ahead of suspicion in a duel of wits with keenly observant Investigator Hubbard, who is heading up the case. That is more than enough to go on, as the rest unfolds before your eyes, involving latch keys, a set of curtained French doors, a purloined love letter and, as the title suggests, a telephone.
The thrust stage and small size of the Gremlin's house creates an intimacy that brings us right into Margot and Tony's well-appointed flat (designed by Carl Schoenborn), making us almost accomplices in the goings-on at hand. While there are some holes in the plot, we coast over them because we are drawn into the almost gleeful malice. That drawing-in is largely accomplished by way of Peter Christian Hansen's excellent performance as Tony, a meld of the poise of some accustomed to being a celebrity, the arrogance of a man who thinks himself the smartest person in the room, and the unscrupulousness of a desperate man. Hansen's handsome visage and jovial manner make Margot's initial attraction to him completely reasonable. In contrast, Dan Hopman's portrayal of Max, also handsome but in a boyish way that seems more innocent, radiates sincerity and kindness, so that we sympathize Margot's betrayal of her inattentive husband with a passionate affair with Max.
Alan Sorenson is splendid as Inspector Hubbard, bringing to life the detective's crafty intelligence and wit, while Emily Dussault is convincing as Margot, tender toward Max, accommodating toward Tony, and unhinged when the unthinkable occurs in her own living room. Grant Henderson has less opportunity to impress as Tony's accomplice, Captain Lesgate, but is just fine in the role.
The costumes, designed by Sarah Bauer, appear straight out of a 1950s British society page, while eminent dialect coach Keely Wolter has guided the cast to deliver their lines in variations of English accents, with Tony and Margot sounding more high bred than the others. Inna Skogerboe's sound design allows us to hear the coming and going of people in the unseen entryway beyond the door into Tony and Margot's flat, adding to the air of suspense.
In Dial M for Murder, a telephone plays a major role. It is essential that it be a telephone in from the 1950s, or at least before cordless phones, phones with plug-in extensions, and cell phones made voice communication our constant companion. The plot is fixed in its era, and so is the tone of the play. Were Dial M for Murder to premiere today, my guess is that it would be found facile and somewhat plodding, unsuited to our age of instant 24/7 access, quick takes, and high-tech editing.
The play still works, at least in the right hands, as a period piece that invites its audience to return to a simpler though no less sinister era, and to bear witness to a tale told at a human, rather than digitized, pace. Gremlin Theater assuredly is the right set of hands, especially with Brian Columbus' direction and Peter Christian Hansen's central performance shining fresh light on this old chestnut.
Dial M for Murder, through September 30, 2018, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: General admission - $28.00, seniors and Fringe button holders - $25.00, under 30, pay half your age for any performance. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.
Playwright: Frederick Knott; Director: Brian Columbus; Technical Director, Set and Lighting Design: Carl Schoenborn; Costume and Prop Design: Sarah Bauer; Sound Design: Inna Skogerboe; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight Choreographer: Aaron Preusse; Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen
Cast: Emily Dussault (Margo Wendice), Peter Christian Hansen (Tony Wendice), Grant Henderson (Captain Lesgate), Dan Hopman (Max Halliday), Alan Sorenson (Inspector Hubbard).