Dial ‘m’ for Murder

If you grew up dialing rather than pressing "M" for murder, you'll probably enjoy this revival of the 1952 TV play as a classic and genteel thriller. But the touch-tone generation may find it quaint at best and dated at worst.

With:
Cast: Nancy Allen (Margot Wendice), J.G. Hertzler (Max Halliday), John James (Tony Wendice), Michael Halsey (Captain Lesgate), Roddy McDowall (Inspector Hubbard), Lawrence Hecht (Thompson).

If you grew up dialing rather than pressing “M” for murder, you’ll probably enjoy this revival of the 1952 TV play as a classic and genteel thriller. But the touch-tone generation may find it quaint at best and dated at worst.

The plot of “Dial ‘M'” is wonderfully intricate and clever. Savvy first-timers won’t guess what happens next. Those who saw the original play or the Grace Kelly movie have probably forgotten the story. They are also more likely to be comfortable with the measured pace and extended dialogues of this production.

Not so the boomer generation, one of whom stood up at the first intermission and asked of no one in particular, “Who cares?” Who cares about characters like Margot and Tony Wendice, who try to keep up appearances despite a troubled marriage, when countrymen Prince Charles and Lady Di tattle their tawdry tales on TV? Who cares about a plot that takes two hours to unwind?

For those willing to hang in there, the play can be fun and rewarding. It would be more so if the director, Edward Hastings, could shape some real characters instead of icons and get them to react as an ensemble.

Roddy McDowall’s Inspector Hubbard is a dapper and burr-accented prototype of Colombo. Colombo acts simple-minded and chatters endlessly; the inspector feigns surprise and says “Hmmm” a lot. But stylistic differences aside, they both serve to reassure us that when they’re around, justice will prevail.

Nancy Allen (“Robocop”) plays the wife, Margot; John James (“Dynasty”) is her hubby. That casting obviously broadens box office appeal. It also emphasizes the gap in acting depth between film and TV actors and their stage-trained colleagues like McDowall and J.G. Hertzler, who plays Margot’s former lover, Max. James does manage to give the impression of a debonair cad, but Allen’s portrayal of the wife needs to move beyond dither and despair.

Michael Halsey is mildly menacing and mannerly, a proper English villain. So proper, in fact, that the audience laughs rather than cringes when someone checks the murder victim’s body for signs of life. A two-minute murder completely void of screaming, cursing, spurting blood and a trashed set has to be a joke, right?

Production values are faithful to the play’s ’50s sensibility in manners, costumes, and in the single set — the Wendices’ living room. It’s a nice-looking show, but the cost of blackmail in 1952 was so low –$ 2,000 — that the director’s honest attempt at authenticity becomes overpowered by irrelevance.

An opening-night problem with echoes in the body mikes was probably solved by the next performance. Never should have happened, though. Putting legs on this production’s proposed Broadway run will take more than the name recognition and nostalgia. This reviewer actually loved the show, warts and all, but was probably outnumbered.

Dial 'm' for Murder

Production: WILMINGTON, Del. A Lightstone Prods. revival of a play in three acts by Frederick Knott. Directed by Edward Hastings.

Crew: Set, Adirondack Scenic Inc.; designer, Wally Coberg; costumes, Bernardine Vida; lighting, Steve Cochrane and Michael Baldassari; sound, Blackhawk Audio; production stage manager, John W. Calder III. Producer, Alan Lichtenstein. Opened, reviewed Nov. 28, 1995, at the Playhouse Theater; 1,239 seats; $ 42 top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

With: Cast: Nancy Allen (Margot Wendice), J.G. Hertzler (Max Halliday), John James (Tony Wendice), Michael Halsey (Captain Lesgate), Roddy McDowall (Inspector Hubbard), Lawrence Hecht (Thompson).

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