When I walked into the Gremlin Theatre space and beheld the set for Shadowplay Theatre’s inaugural production, Dial M For Murder, I had some serious flashbacks to my old community theater days. This is not a bad thing. In fact, quite the opposite. Zach Morgan’s sturdy three walled set with multiple doors, Robert J. Smith’s props, and Ariel Leaf’s stark pre-show lighting design all promised some solid, well-executed old school theatrical entertainment. Director David Carol and his cast delivered on that promise.
“I’ve murdered 52 people since I’ve seen you last.”
Frederick Knott’s script is one of those deliberately claustrophobic affairs from the 1950s where all the action continues to return to the same room, with only a hint of the world beyond. Since Dial M For Murder is all about “the perfect crime” and the attention to detail required to pull it off, the focus on the sitting room of the Wendice’s London apartment (the scene of the crime) makes perfect sense. We need a little dose of “Exposition Radio” to get us caught up on the action in the outside world partway into the second act but otherwise the strain of being confined to those three walls rarely shows.
“There were times I felt you almost belonged to me.”
Tony Wendice (Nathan Tylutki), a former British tennis pro, knows his wife Margot (Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong) has been unfaithful to him with a TV mystery writer from America (oh, the indignity) named Max (Brian Columbus). Margot regrets the affair and is trying to make her marriage work. She believes her husband has remained clueless all this time. In fact, she claims to Max that Tony has been a model husband. This good behavior, however, is just a cover while Tony plots poor Margot’s demise.
“It’s really a dreadful play. We’re enjoying every minute of it.”
Tony recruits a former schoolmate named Lesgate (among other aliases) (Lucas Gerstner) to help him. Lesgate has spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law, just a couple of steps ahead of the cops. Tony blackmails Lesgate into assisting him in getting rid of Margot. Naturally, even though Tony thinks he has plotted things out perfectly, something goes horribly awry. Not to worry, Tony decides to frame Margot for the fallout. The question is whether Max and the avuncular detective Inspector Hubbard (David Tufford) – with his trusty assistant Williams (Jerome J. Urmann) – can unravel Tony’s twisted plot in time to save Margot’s life.
“It’s cheaper than the zoo and far more tropical.”
Like many a good Agatha Christie yarn, Dial M For Murder is largely an intellectual exercise. Everyone, with the exception of Max, is very British about everything – civilized, not overly emotional, even when they’re feeling betrayed and plotting to murder someone. Nathan Tylutki as the vengeful Tony is never thrown for long, despite the fact that Margot keeps refusing to die as planned. His nimble machinations turning a hired hit gone wrong into a way to ship his wife off to prison are pretty impressive. The only thing missing here is a little heat. That goes for Margot and Max as well. Everyone’s so collected and rational about the supposedly simmering love triangle that I’m missing the chemistry. Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong and Brian Columbus as Margo and Max are a couple the audience wants to root for, and Columbus’ longing is certainly clear. It just doesn’t seem to flow both ways right now.
“In a couple of days you’ll have one hell of a breakdown.”
I found myself wondering why Margot stays with Tony. Her assertion that he’s been great to her since the end of the affair (of which she thinks he’s ignorant) isn’t born out in the way Tony treats Margot in front of Max, and the audience. In fact, Margot seems more afraid of Tony than anything else, as if he could blow up at any moment. I get Margot’s nervousness at having both Tony and Max in the same room together, given their history. But Tony’s cool demeanor comes off menacing and borderline abusive because of the way Margot responds to him. While I understand the need for Tony to keep his wits about him at all times and not let his emotions get the better of him, his constant reserve is in danger of making him a blank slate on which both the audience and the other characters can project the worst of personalities as well as the best.
“The five motives for murder: Fear. Jealousy. Money. Revenge. Protecting Someone You Love.”
If, for instance, Tony was solicitous of his wife, even romantic, rather than being so offhand, his transformation when plotting the murder with Lesgate would be that much more unsettling. I could buy both Margot and Max being clueless to Tony’s schemes if he were a more convincing good husband during the moments they’re watching. No law says he can’t even gloat a little, fawning over his wife in front of her former lover as if to say, “She’s great, and she’ll all mine, buddy” rather than “She’s in my clutches and you can’t save her.” I appreciate that Tony doesn’t degenerate into a moustache-twirling villain, but right now he’s so well-behaved that it’s sometimes hard to remember he’s a husband who feels wronged and is plotting revenge with a bruised ego and a broken heart. If we don’t see that he cares, where’s the motive for murder?
“The saints protect us from the gifted amateur.”
All that changes, of course, in Act Two, when David Tufford’s delightful Inspector Hubbard arrives on the scene. Hubbard likes nothing better than solving a puzzle. He loves his job, and it shows. His smile and his sense of humor are a great complement to his dogged devotion to getting all the pieces to fit together. Watching the game of cat and mouse between Tony and Hubbard is a lot of fun. Even though both Tony and the audience feel that he’s outwitted Hubbard early on, the fact that Hubbard keeps resurfacing means the game is far from over. Tufford’s detective is so charming and amusing to watch in action that the actor is in serious danger of being accused of stealing the show. Like Hubbard, though, Tufford never overplays his hand. It’s a tricky balancing act because the script gives Hubbard a lot of room to play. Kudos to Tufford and director David Coral for keeping things in balance.
If you stick with Dial M For Murder through the set-up of act one, the payoff in act two is well worth the wait. It’s nice to have the new Shadowplay Theatre on the scene, devoted to mysteries and thrillers. Just like it’s fun every now and again to curl up with a mystery book and puzzle it out, it’s also fun to curl up with a good production of an old familiar mystery play and watch it spin its tale.
Closing this weekend – final performances – Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 7:30pm – 11/17, 11/18, 11/19 – Gremlin Theatre (2400 University Avenue, St. Paul, MN) – For reservations and more information, visit shadowplaytheatre.org
(Photo by Brian Joyce for Shadowplay Theatre – Nathan Tylutki, Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong, and Lucas Gerstner in Dial M For Murder)