Review: DIAL M FOR MURDER at Northlight Theatre

The classic thriller runs through January 7.

By: Dec. 10, 2023
Review: DIAL M FOR MURDER at Northlight Theatre

It’s one of the great mysteries that plagues theater companies. How do you present audiences with classic shows they know and love while keeping these stories fresh and exciting for new generations? This can be especially challenging when the show in question is a thriller whose twists and turns have been well-known for over 70 years. But for Northlight Theatre and their riveting take on DIAL M FOR MURDER, the solution is practically elementary: choose an exciting new adaptation by an inventive American playwright, place at the helm a director with a keen eye and a preference for understatement, and assemble a small but powerful crew of designers and actors whose attention to subtlety and nuance rivals that of the greatest detectives in popular culture. The result is a breathtaking, pulse-pounding, and even mordantly witty production that has already been extended through January 7 due to popular demand.

Audiences familiar with Frederick Knott’s original 1952 play or the 1954 film adaptation that helped make Alfred Hitchcock a household name will know the basic plot of DIAL M. The failed novelist Tony Wendice (Ryan Hallahan) discovers that his wealthy wife Margot (Lucy Carapetyan) has been having an affair with a more successful writer of mysteries and thrillers. Consumed with jealousy and assisted by a desperate contract killer (Felipe Carrasco), Tony plots to murder Margot and inherit her fortune.

But Northlight hasn’t chosen to produce the version of the story you’ll find playing on Turner Classic Movies. Instead, they have opted for Jeffrey Hatcher’s rightfully lauded 2022 adaptation that makes some welcome changes to the basic plot while keeping all the excitement intact. The most obvious of these adjustments is changing Margot’s lover Max to Maxine (Elizabeth Laidlaw). Those who think such gender-swapping is simply another example of “wokeness” run amok are failing to consider that the change raises the stakes of Knott’s original while also creating characters who were always deserving of more depth and complexity. By turning Margot’s extramarital affair into a touching example of forbidden same-sex love, Hatcher leads audiences to root for the couple’s success, or at least to have greater sympathy for the two. The change also answers questions that always plagued the original script. How are Margot and Maxine able to get away with their affair for so long right under Tony’s nose? Well, no one second guesses an affectionate gesture or word exchanged between two women. Why is Margot so terrified of having her clandestine relationship come to light at a time when affairs were common fodder for entertainment? Because it would irrevocably destroy not just her own social standing but that of her lover as well. Hatcher’s simple adjustment makes the plot of DIAL M so much more cohesive and provocative that one wonders why another writer didn’t come up with the solution even sooner.

That being said, even the most brilliant murder mystery can be dragged down by the tropes and necessities of the genre. But director Georgette Verdin accepts this challenge as an opportunity to give audiences a master class in perfectly timed pacing and carefully orchestrated blocking. She moves her performers through stunning and intelligent configurations that convey emotional and thematic developments while still managing to feel completely natural. Some of the play’s most striking moments come when two characters face each other with murderous rage in darkening shadows before having to snap out of the showdown when another person enters the room. Eric Watkins provides the effectively ominous lighting design, a perfect complement to Mara Ishihara Zinky’s subtly stylish but appropriately claustrophobic set.

Of course, it also helps that Verdin gets to direct performers that have the same penchant for detail as she does. Carrasco elicits gasps and laughs as the hired killer Lesgate, leaving audiences wishing they could see more of a role that otherwise exists solely as a plot device. As the investigating detective with a stereotypical stiff upper lip, Nick Sandys gives a masterful performance in a role that similarly gets too little time onstage. With rapid-fire delivery and wit as dry as sawdust, Sandys expertly guides viewers around every turn of the screw and encourages chuckles that make the mounting tension all the more palpable.

Hallahan moves and emotes with the sinister fluidity one would expect from a pathological liar like Tony, while also maintaining a disarming charisma. At one point, Hallahan adopts an affected limp to trick another character, and I had completely forgotten it wasn’t a part of his original performance until the ruse was exposed half a scene later. Carapetyan carefully walks audiences through Margot’s precipitous descent into anxiety and fear as Tony’s lies mount and she begins to doubt who she can trust. It’s harrowing to watch as she goes from commanding the space that has been paid for with her money to flinching away at the slightest sound or shift of the drapes. But it’s her touching chemistry with Laidlaw that will leave audiences hoping that the couple will remain together despite the odds stacked against them. Laidlaw’s Maxine is captivatingly steely, hiding behind an ever-present smirk and a dark sense of humor, so it’s all the more satisfying to see those defenses melt away completely when left alone in Margot’s embrace. When Margot asks Maxine why she should be trusted, Laidlaw delivers the line “You know why” with such weight and pain that the love story at the center of the plot becomes every bit as riveting as the murder in the play’s title.

Altogether, Northlight’s DIAL M FOR MURDER delivers chilling thrills and delightfully dark humor in an utterly captivating showcase of artists at the height of their powers.