DIAL “M” FOR MURDER

The Group Rep starts the summer off with a stylishly directed, classily designed, mostly quite well-cast revival of Frederick Knott’s classic 1952 thriller Dial “M” For Murder.

Professional tennis player Tony Wendice (Adam Jonas Segaller) and his wife Margot (Carrie Schroeder) would appear at first glance to have a marriage as blissful as any two glamorous 30someting Londoners could hope to present to the public eye, that is until a visit from American mystery novelist Max Halliday (Justin Waggle) reveals cracks in their outward marital bliss.

Even years after his adulterous affair with Margot, the torch Max carries for his London lover still blazes, and though Margot has burned most of Max’s passionate love letters, one of them she did keep secretly hidden till her handbag went missing and the letter inside it as well.

That’s when the blackmail notes started arriving.

Anyone who’s seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie adaptation will likely not mind any spoilers ahead. Dial “M” For Murder virgins, on the other hand, are advised skip the next paragraph.

It turns out to be none other than Tony himself who’s been “blackmailing” his adulterous heiress wife as part of a perfect-murder plot so intricately conceived, crime novelist Max could have thought of it himself, a plan that will soon involve “Captain Lesgate” (Michael Robb), a Cambridge University schoolmate of Tony’s who has since embarked on a life of not-so-successful crime.

There’s just one hitch.

“In stories things turn out as the author plans them to,” replies Max when Margot asks whether he himself believes in “the perfect murder.” “In real life,” the mystery whiz goes on, “they don’t always.”

Truer words turn out never to have been spoken, and before long Police Inspector Hubbard (Doug Haverty) has arrived to investigate a perfect murder gone wrong.

Like Knott’s 1960s stage-to-screen classic Wait Until Dark, Dial “M” For Murder combines fiendishly clever plotting with refreshing bits of humor, and if it doesn’t have nail-biting eleventh-hour damsel-in-the-dark thrills of Knott’s only other smash, as any Agatha Christie/Arthur Conan Doyle fan can tell you, there’s nothing quite like seeing an ace detective outwit the most cunning of killers.

Bruce Kimmel directs for The Group Rep with considerable flair, keeping the patter breezy and the pace brisk throughout. (Even with its two intermissions, Dial “M” For Murder clocks in at just about two hours.)

Native Brit Segaller and Aussie transplant Schroeder have the acting chops, charisma, and spot-on accents to anchor the production with matching star turns.

Waggle’s all-American six-footer provides a nifty contrast to his London hosts, and though Haverty’s English accent doesn’t ring true as true as his British Commonwealth costars, he gives the inspector just-right blend of wit and smarts, with Hisato Masuyama-Ball earning his own laugh or two in a brief cameo as police officer Thompson.

Only Robb’s weird-and-weaselly Lesgate strains credibility, not the least because the actor comes across a couple decades too advanced in years to have been Segaller’s Cambridge upperclassman.

Scenic designer J. Kent Inasy’s strikingly ceilinged set gives Dial “M” For Murder a stylish, meticulously detailed London flat on which to unfold.

Inasy’s dramatic lighting design adds to the thrills as does Grant Geissman’s incidental music, part of Steve Shaw’s effective sound design.

Costume designer Angel M. Eads scores mostly high marks for the production’s period wear, though no stylish early-‘50s Londoner would have set foot in public with her skirts above mid-calf.

Dial “M” For Murder is produced for The Group Rep by Mannette Antill. LizAnne Keigley is assistant producer and Cheryl Crosland is assistant director. Rishi Das is production stage manager and Tianka McAdory is assistant stage manager.

It’s precisely thrillers like Dial “M” For Murder that folks are talking about when they say, “They don’t write plays like that anymore,” and indeed the arrival of cell phones makes a contemporary adaptation pretty much out of the question.

All the more reason to revive this mid-20th-century suspense classic precisely as written back in the early 1950s. Deliciously plotted and for the most part terrifically acted, the latest from The Group Rep makes for (Dial “M” For) Murderous Fun.

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The Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood. Through August 23. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 818 763-5990
www.thegrouprep.com

–Steven Stanley
June 30, 2017
Photos: Doug Engalla

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