Dial-Up Death

Although a few details aren't right, LTW's 'Dial' is a success

Frederick Knott's Dial "M" for Murder has no particular philosophical or sociological message, and the murder in the title carries with it no mystery; we know who planned it, who tries to carry it out and who ends up killing whom before intermission. There is nothing more to this play than good, solid entertainment arising from a taut, intricate script, and it's enjoying a tight production at Live Theatre Workshop.

Alfred Hitchcock made a film version of the play in the 1950s, but this thriller doesn't require the Hitchcock touch to come off well; all the raw material is right there in the script, waiting for a good ensemble of actors to bring it to life, and that's precisely what's happening in the current production.

Former English tennis star and would-be playboy Tony Wendice has married for money, but his attractive wife, Margot, remains ignorant of this fact. She has been sufficiently attuned to Tony's lack of interest in her, though, that one year before the play's action, she indulged in a fling with an American TV mystery writer named Max Halliday, who fortuitously reappears just when things are turning bad for Margot. You see, Tony has concocted an elaborate scheme to have her murdered; while he's safely away establishing an alibi, an old-school acquaintance of dubious character is to murder Margot, making it look like a botched burglary, and taking 1,000 pounds for his trouble.

The murder doesn't go according to plan, but there is a body on the living-room floor at the end of the night. Tony can still collect Margot's fortune if he can make it appear that Margot killed the victim with premeditation. Will he get away with it? Or will police Inspector Hubbard find the one clue that will enable him to deduce the truth? That's where the real suspense comes in, and playwright Knott builds it with perfect skill.

If there's anything to complain about in the Live Theatre Workshop production, it's that director Jeremy Thompson and the production crew have overlooked a few prominent details. The script refers more than once to the hired killer's moustache, but actor Richard Girard is clean-shaven. He is supposed to hide behind curtains, but said curtains are stretched tight against the doors; to hide back there, he'd have to be a killer bee. And in the end, there are references to a blue attaché case of money, but the case doesn't fit the description.

In the larger, more important respects, however, the production comes off extremely well. As Tony, Stephen Frankenfield has the measure of a duplicitous, hail-fellow-well-met English ex-jock, and you can tell he's up to no good from his first entrance. Dana Armstrong is a steady, sturdy Margot, quite different from the heroine-victim she played a few months ago in the rather similar Angel Street. Kevin Lucero Less is a natural as the smart, slightly brash but caring American writer, although his performance is a bit too strongly reminiscent of his turn a couple of seasons ago as the beleaguered Italian-American grandson in Over the River and Through the Woods, right down to the way he strokes his pinkie.

Chuck Rankin deploys effective English reserve as the would-be killer, although he offers little sense of being backed into a corner by Tony's efforts to blackmail him; he and Frankenfield don't generate quite enough tension in their one scene together. Bruce Bieszki does extremely well as Inspector Hubbard, something of an English Columbo prototype, and the sort of role that is becoming Bieszki's stock in trade.

Although it's still set in the 1950s, Dial "M" for Murder hasn't aged a bit, at least not as Live Theatre Workshop presents it. This is a serious thriller that's great fun. If only one could simply dial "T" for tickets.

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