Updated: Jun 20
Over six decades have passed since “Dial M for Murder” premiered on British TV. Not a year has gone by since then, that this psychological potboiler has not appeared on some stage — as fresh and tantalizing now as it was then.
In validation of that fact, English playwright Frederick Knott’s tightly constructed melodrama, “Dial M for Murder,” comes to the stage at one of my favorite theatres from September 13th through October 19th, performed by a brilliant east Westchester troupe called Kentwood Players, renowned for showcasing some of the best talent in LA. If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing one of their first-rate shows, I would heartily recommend this slick, stylish production to be your first riveting, rousing, sensationally gripping experience. Some theatergoers may already be familiar with the story from the classic 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film.
Written masterfully by Frederick Knott, and directed by the extraordinary George Kondreck, playwright Knott is known for placing attractive women in dire situations, and has created what is still today one of the most popular thrillers for stage and screen. The fact that we return to murder mysteries again and again, even though we know the outcome, probably says something about our deep-seated human nature. What's clear, however, is that a quintessential thriller like "Dial M for Murder" possesses unending power to entertain us and never seems out of date, underscoring the resilience of the timeless cloak and dagger genre. Director Kondreck’s intricate direction and marvelous design faithfully elicits those required feelings of noir and circumstance, presenting chills and squeals throughout the show.
The son of missionaries, Knott was born in Hankow, China, in 1916, and was descended from a line of wealthy Lancashire mill-owners. An exceptionally fine tennis player, the advent of the Second World War prevented his competing at Wimbledon. He eventually took up writing as a career.
It was at a chalet in a West Sussex garden that he wrote “Dial M for Murder.” He later said that the inspiration for the play was the bang of a gun going off in an old, oak-paneled house nearby. It took him 18 months, and there were times when the creative effort was such that he remained in his dressing gown and his mother would leave meals for him at the door. Knott was described as a particularly meticulous writer, producing a fascinating web of clues, counter-clues, and red herrings that intrigued theatre audiences.
Adapted to accommodate American tastes and colloquialisms, the play's Broadway opening in 1952 was a huge success, eventually seen in over 30 countries. Its enduring popularity and endless revivals has since made it a staple of repertory and amateur groups.
Hitchcock's film, released two years later, starred Ray Milland as the scheming husband, Grace Kelly as his wife, and John Williams as the Inspector. The director became a close friend of Knott, who stayed with the Hitchcocks throughout the filming, during which the director presented him with his own named chair on the set alongside his.
As the play opens, the audience is within the living room of the wealthy British couple, Tony and Margot Wendice. Tony (Justin Heller), a tennis star who has outlived his glory, has married a wealthy, good-natured and graceful woman, Margot (Courtney Shaffer), to maintain his lavish lifestyle. When he discovers she's having a torrid love affair with an American fictional crime writer by the name of Max Halliday (Jeremy Palmer), he becomes consumed with jealousy, revenge and greed, and conjures a diabolical plan to have Margot exterminated.
Soon Tony is consorting with Captain Lesgate, an old acquaintance with a shady past (portrayed menacingly by Ross G), who he blackmails into a sinister scheme of killing her. Ross G is supreme when his charlatan Lesgate character veers increasingly closer to desperation as he runs out of options. Though Captain Lesgate possesses a certain level of shrewdness, he is no match for the calculating Tony who easily coerces him into performing the deed for him, providing Tony with a perfect alibi.
''Dial M…'' is not exactly a murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie tale, with a body and a clever detective who figures out how the crime was committed in a surprise ending. In this play, we already know the culprit. So, it is more of a cat-and-mouse waiting game, with plenty of high anxiety. And in a final plot twist, it is something obvious that happens right in front of the audience.
Knowing Tony's intentions in advance and voyeuristically witnessing his huggermuggery and machinations make viewers complicit, while injecting psychological complexity into the play. Because we know more than the characters, Knott's taut, witty dialogue acquires ironic and darkly humorous undertones. It's also intriguing to see the way everyday objects like a letter, house key and pair of scissors can attain sinister significance.
The actors are all very adept at infusing depth and vitality into their characters, seemingly tailor-made for their roles. New faces to the local theater community mix with returning thespians to deliver strong, powerful performances. From the first, Mr. Heller, a transplant from Texas, making his debut at Kentwood Players, appears well at ease and gives his suave, devilishly vengeful Tony a slightly portentous edge that darkens as he goes along, all the while maintaining a British cockney and subtle, seething arrogance. He is the living embodiment of calm, cool, and collected. His lack of passion when contemplating his wife’s murder suggests he may have sociopathic tendencies. In addition to being levelheaded, Tony is subtly manipulative, and able to misdirect individuals to suit his own purposes. And when Tony’s plans go awry, he must tap all his ingenuity to stay one step ahead of the dogged police Inspector (Philip Bartolf) hot on his heels.
Mr. Bartolf is a delight to watch as the initially bumbling, inquisitive Inspector Hubbard, who gradually peels away that pedestrian exterior in classic “Columbo” fashion to expose an uncanny knowledge of human behavior, even offering an occasional bit of humor. It is the Inspector who first sees through Tony’s feigned innocence and begins to deduce the conspiracy the man has concocted, staging incidents to foil our anti-hero when it serves his purpose.
The Inspector is a very “by the book” police officer, occasionally showing brief glimpses of his true good natured character. His loyal, first officer, Jack Maatita as Thompson, adds a touch of youth, as well as a glimpse into the outside world of the Wendice living room.
Mr. Palmer’s down-to-earth Max is clever, insightful and impassioned as Margot’s suitor, Max Halliday, a pioneer in the experimental world of television murder mystery. On paper, Max “kills” one person per week — deciding who, how, and why through random selection. Max is not trained as a professional detective like Inspector Hubbard, but he does sort through crime scene potpourri like a player in a game of Clue. He believes in the perfect murder — on paper. “And I think I could plan one better than most people,” he innocently brags to Tony on the evening of the planned murder, “but I doubt if I could carry it out.” Why? “Because in stories things turn out as the author plans them. In real life they don’t — always.”
Mr. Heller’s co-star, Ms. Shaffer, another new arrival from the Bay Area, holds her own as world-wise Margot, the charming wife with a trusting vulnerability, yet perfectly accentuating the privileged English socialite. Margot has no idea that Tony knows of her past affair with Max, nor does she suspect that Tony is planning to murder her. Defenseless, Margot will need to improvise in order to survive. On her journey she will face a deadly contest with a scarf and a pair of scissors, endure imprisonment and prosecution, and learn of Tony’s treachery.
Up until the moment of the awful attempted death scene, the audience knows that Tony is in control and that Margo has little chance of survival; we watch even as Tony listens to the sounds of the horrid struggle, and then her choking voice in the phone. But Margo is not dead. What makes “Dial M for Murder” so compelling is not the fact that a man carries out a plot to murder his wife, but because when everything in his seemingly perfect plan A fails, he is nearly able to extemporize his way to freedom with a brilliant contingency plan B. Tony’s composure and cleverness are so great that an audience might even begin to overlook his faults and cheer on his escape; but he never truly develops into a likable villain, or even a bad guy we love to hate, such as perhaps, Count Fesco from Wilkie Collins’ great detective story, “The Woman in White,” or the admirably terrifying Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca.” It is not too disappointing, then, in the end, when Inspector Hubbard of Scotland Yard manages to “push Tony into his own fire.”
Director George Kondreck has wisely chosen to treat the play's period vision as an asset, and has created a crowning achievement with this production. Most often a master set builder as well as a stage actor, Director Kondreck’s most recent directorial credits include the Agatha Christie thriller, “The Hollow.” Doug Carson’s elegant drawing-room set with its fireplace, white molding and dado rail surbase serves for all scenes in the show, and becomes increasingly disheveled as our would-be fleecer’s confident facade disintegrates.
Kira Sherman and Hollister Starrett’s Lighting Design is moody and emotionally compelling, using the influence of light and darkness to add suspense and compliment the scene’s intrigue. Producer/Costume Designer Kathy Dershimer's sophisticated British attire, along with Costume Designer Cathy Kondreck, includes wonderfully elegant formal wear, including tuxes and gowns. Susan Stangl’s original Sound Design is gilt-edged with her mélange of sound effects, music, pre-recorded phone calls, evocative foley effects and creative audio.
Kentwood Players’ “Dial M for Murder” continues through October 19th at Westchester Playhouse with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Reserved seat tickets are $22 with a $2 discount for seniors, students and servicemen. To purchase tickets, please email the box office at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (310) 645-5156, preferably during box office hours, Wednesday through Saturday from 4:00-7:00pm. Address is two blocks north of Manchester at 8301 Hindry Avenue in Westchester. This show is highly recommended.
The Show Report