The cast: (clockwise from upper left) Region, Wanderman, Murphy, Trainor, Berntson; photos: Dan Region
Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott. Directed by Flo Hayle.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Max, I know Tony. You don’t."
Margot Wendice believes she knows and understands her still youthful, tennis-playing, center-stage-addicted husband, Tony. She would defend him to the ends of the earth. She would even do this to Max Halliday, the young American man she loves as dearly as she once loved her husband. In Frederick Knott’s play, "Dial M For Murder" - a true classic - everyone has a motive for bringing a murder case to its conclusion and no one more so than police Inspector Hubbard who has seen the case through from investigation to death sentence. The true crime in this play is not the murder itself, nor the intended crime that is aborted; it is the deliberate obfuscation of the deepest motive of all: the need to be appreciated.
On stage now at the Ghent Playhouse, Knott’s mystery hit (it played 552 performances in its initial Broadway run, inspired a Hitchcock film and has been restaged and refilmed more than two dozen times) is opening their 2011/12 season. Having seen the play just a few months ago at the Dorset Playhouse in Vermont with a brilliant cast and a director who brought new insights out of the script, it is difficult to see it again so soon and with a company of community players whose work I generally like doing somewhat less than the summer’s professional company brought to their roles. This was inevitable.
Still, the show on stage in Ghent is engaging and endearing and the workings of a good script are still in evidence. For an audience that has never seen the play on stage, this is a well-wrought introduction the work. I feel somewhat out on a limb with someone just out of reach slowly but inexorably sawing my branch off the trunk. I will proceed to tell you what I saw, but that observation will obviously be colored.
Let me start with Max, the American TV mystery writer, played here by the talented Paul Murphy. Tall, big-haired, bass-baritone Richard Derr played the part originally in New York and the film presented Robert Cummings as the romantic leading man. Murphy and Cummings have something in common here: neither one succeeds in making the character believable and for the exact same reasons. Max’s dialogue is strained and hard to take in the first act. He, a "typical" American of the 1950s, is not given a credible sensibility by the British author. As written his ego far outweighs his ability to express it. He messes up reality by overplaying his hand for Margot and both these actors fall into that trap. Making Max believable and likeable is the hardest task in this show and Murphy does much better in the final scenes of the play than he does anywhere else and Cummings was in exactly that same position. Neither man has the physical charisma of Derr and it may have been that romantic impression that saved the actor in the role way back in 1952. Murphy, who has charm, doesn’t physically bring that sensibility to the stage this time.
Jill Wanderman pulls Margot out of her British hat by ignoring the rigors of a recognizable accent and playing the role "American." She has a lovely voice that tends to be shrill when she plays anger or anxiety. She is not the romantic figure of a girl that Grace Kelly was and not even the exotic soul of the younger Gusti Huber. Instead she presents a wife in mid-marriage who has given glamor a break and taken on an upper middle-class appearance enhanced by the odd costumes designed by Lisa Baumbach. Wanderman’s dresses don’t seem to fit either her body or her character. There is no flow to them, nor to her nightdress. They only emphasize her plains, and not her sensuality. Her performance has moments of absolute sheen but those are surrounded by periods of utter commonality. She makes you wonder why Max has fallen for her, why Tony is jealous.
Tony (Maurice Evans on Broadway; Ray Milland in the movie) is played with a rigorous American fervor by Daniel Region. Like Murphy he seems to strain against the dialogue at times, although he does better throughout the play. He delivers no English accent, has no mannerisms that separate him from his American rival. He is believable, however, as a plotting scoundrel with an emotionless soul. He gives a Tony whose motives seem immediate and accessible, whose technique is solid and as well developed as his Tennis backhand serve. Region is intriguing to watch. He is handsome and attractive for a moment, then moderately repulsive as his body and his face contort awkwardly. He lets his Tony struggle with this odd, Dickensian trait. As often as possible he plays against the script’s words and in the third act he adds a laughing persona that allows him to play out Tony’s fantasy of controlling his world easily and without fear.
John Trainor brings a remarkably realistic British sensibility and accent to his performance of the police inspector. His years of experience in murder mysteries has given him a self-assurance in these roles that clearly shows in this play. Under Flo Hayle’s direction he seems to be rushing through a few things that he would normally take slowly and deliberately and now and then he seemed to be fighting the director’s need to move on. But even that helped to give his character edge and fire.
Neal Berntson does a nice job as Captain Lesgate, the reprobate who is caught in Tony Wendice’s murderous trap. He knows how to make sleazy acceptable and how to make pseudo-respectability into an uncomfortable box ripping at its seams. Paul Leyden makes his first exit as Thompson a memorable moment. Someone does nicely with voices
Hayle’s direction of the play includes a brief but highly effective choreographed murder, some devilishly tricky acrobatics on furniture, and a few less defined visuals that seem to be the result of not wanting to imitate the work of others. Unfortunately those are the moments we wait for: the shaft of light from the bedroom door; the staircase discovery; the telling looks between Margot and Max. The play suffers from a lack of these things. On the other side, she has given her Margot a reality that is hard to come by, has strengthened Lesgate’s dignity, and taken a few new and interesting turns with the unrepentant Tony.
On balance, this production cannot compare with the one I saw in Vermont in July but it does factor favorably against the Hitchcock film. Tony’s sense of humor is better here. Margot’s near breakdown is broader and more realistic. Max’s realization of the plot is presented with greater simplicity and honesty on this stage. This will never be my favorite production of the play but it is one that adds much to the long history of a very good play and that makes it worth the time and money. And a good play is always worth revisiting.
Dial M For Murder plays at the Ghent Playhouse, located just off Route 66 in Ghent, New York through October 30. For tickets and information contact the box office at 518392-6264.