Dial "M" For Murder by Frederick Knott. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"They’ll assume. . ."
Janie Brookshire & Ian Holcomb; photo provided
Tony Wendice, the hero/villain of Frederick Knott’s classic thriller "Dial ‘M’ For Murder" believes that with enough superficial evidence the authorities will assume whatever it is planned for them to believe about a murder. He is clever, ruthless, almost to the verge of madness, and when things don’t go exactly as he planned them he has the good grace to rearrange the world he is left with to compensate adequately for the inadequacies of others. His wife and her friend Max have some of the same plucky qualities and that makes for a two hour and twenty minutes game of ‘who’s on first?’ for this trio of luckless lovers.
It takes a policeman, Inspector Hubbard, to trip up the mastermind and prove conclusive innocence and guilt. In the process more than just lives are at stake. Our interest and boredom levels are also caught in the mix.
At the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont, director Giovanna Sardelli has crafted a lively version of the 1950s play and 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film. She has a handsome and youthful company of players and something different happens in this production: we empathize with everyone. It isn’t just the beleaguered heroine who gets our sympathy, or the besmirched anti-hero who wants to love her. We feel something for Tony, too.
Sardelli manipulates us through the casting and through the subtleties within her direction. Tony gazes at Margot now and then with love in his eyes. He touches her gently and lovingly while plotting her downfall. There is a real sense of loss as he gazes at her in the final scene. This minor alteration in the direction of the play and the relationship’s presentation makes a world of difference. We can find, in spite of the dialogue’s crispness between Tony and Captain Lesgate as the murder is planned, a certain uncertainty in the strengths of Tony’s minor speeches.
The young company includes Janie Brookshire as Margot Wendice. Brookshire is sure and capable at all times, and in the fight sequence, very nicely staged by David Anzuelo, she has so much life and strength she feels remarkable. There is a sincerity in her pain as she tries to be tidy. She manages some genuine angst when Swann, aka Lesgate - a beautiful and modulated performance from Carter Jackson in the role - comes after her with his scarf strained taut between his hands.
Ian Holcomb plays Tony with a ticklish worldliness that he cannot suppress. His solid good looks go far in making Tony a catch for any girl. For this Margot, attractive and openly vulnerable, he is her lord and master. Holcomb is tall and gestures are affirmative. He commands attention easily.
Dion Mucciacito is an unanticipated Max Halliday, the American "lover" whose letters have brought about the tension in the Wendice marriage. Not classically handsome his swarthiness is part of his charm. Mucciacito allows us inside his emotions without ever sacrificing manliness. It’s a tough row this character hoes. The actor in the character is one of the hardest things to get right for actor as the character. Mucciacito seems to display this part of Max effortlessly. He is a man caught in a trap as assuredly as Margot is tripped up by the same expert mechanism.
John Fitzgibbon plays Inspector Hubbard with a charm and humor reminiscent of the best of Agatha Christie’s writing. He adds a touch of laughter, an inflection of psychological attraction and a definite resoluteness that provides a complete, modern character to emerge. Never as stodgy as some of his predecessors, he is a British Columbo, an Anglican personality with a touch of devilment.
Carter Jackson plays Captain Lesgate very well. A bad man trapped into becoming a worse man, he never gives us a sense of remorse or regret in his actions. We don’t like him from his first entrance to his final exit. Lesgate in Jackson’s hands is an inhuman human being, a black and white stranger with no shades of gray in his being.
Sardelli makes familiar and unfamiliar stage pictures with her company. On Lee Savage’s classic set, dressed in Barbara A. Bell’s discreetly suggestive-of-period costumes displayed under the very natural and realistic lighting of Michael Giannitti, the director paints rather than sculpts this show. If something, now and then, seems rushed it never feels forced. Instinctively she moves this cast from point G to point Z (A through F have been played out before the curtain goes up) without anything feeling directed, and that’s an art.
Join the Maida Vale residents for a few months of murder while you can. This production has a limited run - it is summer theater after all - and this company brings so much to the work it is really one not to be missed.
Dial "M" For Murder plays at the Dorset Playhouse on Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont through July 23. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223.