BWW Review: Clermont's Moonlight Players Make Mayhem in DIAL M FOR MURDER
Tonight's my first time in Historic Downtown Clermont. The small parking lot outside the Moonlight Players Theatre already filled up well before I arrived, so I settled on a very uncomfortable parallel parking space a couple blocks down. Fortunately, this allowed me a chance to walk along Minneola Avenue, where an outdoor saxophonist was jazzing out "Sing, Sing, Sing" next door to a bakery filled with customers - some inside ordering sweets, but most already outside on the patio enjoying their wares and the ambient musical stylings of Benny Goodman. I had to double back a couple times before I found the sidewalk that led me to the theatre. The Moonlight Players' 2019-20 season had kicked off a couple weeks ago, but here I was, late to the party, as their season's first production, DIAL M FOR MURDER, had just reached its closing weekend.
Living so close to Walt Disney World sometimes makes me forget that Central Florida offers much more than the House of Mouse. Every year, I strive to venture further and further away from the Disney bubble, earning my "local" card with new discoveries and pockets of history that make the greater Orlando area a hub of excitement and entertainment. Tonight, it has led me to see the Moonlight Players' production of Frederick Knott's DIAL M FOR MURDER. Fittingly, this murder mystery was sponsored by Becker Funeral Home, although the only deaths tonight occur on the stage.
Clermont is only a stone's throw from Walt Disney World, but feels worlds removed, better befitting a one-road hamlet I'd sometimes pass through when driving in my home state of New Jersey. Its historical downtown truly comes alive once the sun sets, and Moonlight Players Theatre has called it home for twenty-five years. The theatre itself had once been a car shop, not quite evident to a first-time attendee like myself. But regardless what it once was, every weekend in September it transformed into posh apartment of Tony Wendice (Ray Palen) and his socialite wife Margot (Kayleigh Mollycheck). After all, what is a theatre, if not a black box molded into other worlds, with an audience bearing witness to the drama and the comedy that may unfold upon that stage? This building may have once been a car shop, but enough tender loving care had transformed it. And it felt very much like a community effort.
Community effort also helps to describe the production of DIAL M FOR MURDER. Plenty of overlap exists between the cast and crew for the production. Most everyone involved gets name-checked at least twice in different positions, showing just how much dedication and work goes into making good theatre. The show's director Nathan Paul not only helped design the set, but worked on its construction. Young actor Reilly Thorrell, as police officer Thomas, contributed to costume design and set construction, and hosted the half-and-half lottery of both intermissions. Every person has their part in this show, whether it's on the stage or not, which made me appreciate all the work that went into making good theatre.
Friday night's performance was a half-full, modest size crowd who spread about the hundred or so spaces for seating. Converted university desk chairs - complete with a swivel table top - made up the audience's seats. These were especially useful when eating concessions, especially as DIAL M FOR MURDER played out across three acts, with two intermissions that allowed for audience reflection and theories on what would happen next. The two seatmates next to me had driven down forty-five minutes from Mt. Dora for this production. We got to know each other very well across the intermissions, sharing war stories about living in Jersey (them in Hoboken, me outside Philly), along with our mutual interest in the theatre scene of the greater Orlando area. But best of all, we were thoroughly enjoying this particular production, comparing it every so often to Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film.
Of course, if anyone had already seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film, they would know every twist and turn within this murder mystery. I had seen it long enough ago to forget plenty of the finer details. Then again, the joy of a piece like DIAL M FOR MURDER isn't so much asking "Whodunit?" but waiting for that other proverbial shoe to drop. We know who did what, but it becomes a more satisfying experience waiting to see if they get away with it. After all, as television crime writer Max Halliday (Joshua Hernandez) tells Margot, "The perfect murder only ever exists on paper." Too many risk factors in real life may cause things to go awry, and things definitely go awry here. For one thing, the wrong person dies. To those unfamiliar with the play or film, I'll just leave it at that. However, it sets this perfect murder spinning on the rails, with its mastermind struggling to balance his original intentions with that new twist, all the while maintaining his innocence.
Playing the mastermind is Ray Palen, a local playwright and actor. Up until speaking briefly with Palen last night, I had assumed he was British just like his character, Tony Wendice. Thus, being greeted by a Long Island accent only served to shatter my image of Tony, but also to show just how vested into the character Palen inhabits every night. He imbibes in Tony a sense of privileged innocence: no one should suspect him of murder, despite his culpability at every turn. Palen holds the lion's share of stage time, but is a natural on that stage, making Tony's every little blunder in his plan feel all the more genuine.
As Tony's socialite wife Margot, Kayleigh Mollycheck makes her grand debut to the Moonlight Players. She's got a lot riding on her shoulders, particularly for this writer who's been a fan of Grace Kelly (Hitchcock's Margot) since he was fourteen. The greatest joy of theatre is seeing how different actors approach the same roles over time. Margot Wendice had only ever been Grace Kelly to me up until tonight. And in Mollycheck, I delighted in seeing a brand new turn to the character. The audience sympathizes with Margot because of her incredulity at how a traumatic event turns on her.
But perhaps the best performance of the night came from Barry Draper, a mainstay of the Moonlight Players who turns Chief Inspector Hubbard into the Poirot of the piece. There's no exaggerated French accent here, thank goodness, but a very calm and collected portrayal of a man who is determined to get to the truth. Draper never forgets his character's interest in the crime is strictly business: he has no personal or emotional connection to the outcomes of these characters. He is just after the truth. Draper's portrayal never shies from that, giving us a character who feels most like the audience surrogate: removed from, but always invested in, the crime itself.
The way that the crimes of DIAL M FOR MURDER play out definitely feel dated - the very concept of using a rotary telephone has been lost on a couple younger generations already. But with the continuing passage of time, it also stands as a testament to how the nature of a "perfect crime" may change with the growing advancements of technology. Wendice's plan probably would not have worked once Caller ID was invented, so audiences, as they get further and further removed from the original 1950s time period, may find delight in seeing how perfect murders may have been conceived decades past. The meticulous attention to detail that Wendice plans across a long game of a year builds up to one night that goes terribly wrong, and it all unfolds within the simple set of a drawing room.
Of course, drawing room dramas are not exactly new or innovating. A relic of Victorian times, some of the greatest plays are confined to that one set. Agatha Christie's longrunning mystery The Mousetrap certainly comes to mind, along with modern pieces like Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men. Rather, what makes these plays effective is how this small space is used. Knott's play relies on the intimidation of the cramped confines of an apartment. A room that should provide comfort and feel like home then becomes threatening depending on who is speaking, how they stand, where they sit. The singular set is the entire world, every set piece necessary to tell the story at hand. Nothing is wasted on that stage, not even something as inconsequential as a rubbish bin. As recounted before, this apartment exists within the black box of the Moonlight Players Theatre, and it feels very much like a lived-in space. The intimacy of a small theatre better allows the audience - even those in the back row - to still feel like they are front-row viewers.
My one regret in seeing this play may be my tardiness in attending. Had I been aware of this production well before its closing weekend, I would have sought it out sooner. Granted, its opening night occurred the weekend Hurricane Dorian threatened to hit Central Florida, so my attention certainly was elsewhere. But I'm glad to have found another theatrical venue worth checking out in the greater Orlando area. Moonlight Players's DIAL M FOR MURDER closes this weekend, but I'm fairly certain I'll be returning to see another production by them soon.