BWW Reviews: DIAL 'M' FOR MURDER Pays Homage to Hitchcockian Suspense with Varying Results
Is there such thing as the perfect murder? That's certainly the question at the heart of Dial "M" for Murder, the 1952 drama about a husband's plot to murder his adulterous wife. Frederick Knott's play, now playing at University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance, is not as well-known as the Alfred Hitchcock directed film version, and while the production succeeds wonderfully in some areas, it struggles in others.
To start with, the design work is absolutely phenomenal. The unit set by Ian Loveall is extravagant and expensive but not over the top in its depiction of an upper class London flat. The lighting design by Larry Lehew is particularly frightening and chilly in the murder scenE. Kelly Ruiz's costumes, especially the gown worn by leading Lady Juliet Robb in the opening scene, are absolutely stunning.
Director Brant Pope approaches the piece with the clear desire to honor Alfred Hitchcock's mastery of suspense, and the play certainly has the look and feel of Hitchcock's work. However, there are moments where Pope goes a bit too far. Clichéd moments like one in which the front door of the apartment swings open to reveal the murderer bathed in a pool of light should get gasps from the audience. Here it got laughs. Pope's pacing also may win over some audience members and lose others. His slow, methodical building of suspense is arguably the only way to approach the material, and fans of 1950s theatre and cinema will eat it up (I personally was enthralled), but some audience members (mostly the college students in the crowd) noisily shuffled in their seats.
Long, dated, dialogue heavy sitting room dramas like this are tough to sell, and a mystery involving the slow revelation of certain plot points and clues is all the more challenging. While the five leading and supporting performers are all clearly gifted actors, some handle the demands of Knott's play better than others. In the leading role of Tony Wendice, Harrison Harvey is fantastically villainous and evil, though there is something about his performance that doesn't quite ring true, and his motive isn't completely clear as sometimes it appears to be revenge and at other times it seems to be financial. Similarly, it's unclear as to why the hit man played by Sean Moran gives in to Tony's blackmail so quickly. Granted, Knott's script doesn't give Morgan much to work with, but it would be nice to see him try to resist being roped into Tony's plot.
However, there are some cast members that more than rise to the occasion. As Tony's wife, Margot, Juliet Robb looks like an old Hollywood star and carries herself as such. She has classic grace and style, and she gives off an electric, intense energy during the murder sequence. As Margot's lover, Max, Ryan Belock initially seems to be nothing more than a plot device. After all, an adulterous wife must have a counterpart in her affair, but Belock really gets to shine in the third act when he gets to play with some leading man heroics. And Shanon Weaver is delightful to watch as Inspector Hubbard, the slightly arrogant Scottish detective assigned to the case.
By the end of Dial "M" for Murder, it seems there is no such thing as the perfect murder, and I'm guessing that in the present day, there can be no such thing as a perfect production of this intriguing but dated show. The cast certainly gives it their all and the director clearly respects and understands the niche genre, but it must be noted that niche genres have niche audiences. Old souls who love a good thriller are bound to enjoy this faithful and well-crafted production, but others may be wondering how long it will take for one of the characters to wind up in handcuffs.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes including two 10 minute intermissions.
Photo: L to R: Shanon Weaver as "Inspector Hubbard," Harrison Harvey as "Tony Wendice" and Juliet Robb as "Margot Wendice." Photo by Lawrence Peart.
DIAL "M" FOR MURDER, produced by the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance, plays the B. Iden Payne Theatre at 200 E 23rd Street East, Austin, TX, Austin, TX 7871 now thru Sunday, October 13th. Performances are Weds - Sat at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$25. For tickets and information, please visit www.texasperformingarts.org