If Frederick Knott had only written the classic thriller, Dial M for Murder, it would have been enough. Knott actually went on to write only two great mystery dramas – Write Me a Murder and Wait until Dark. This week his first play, Dial M for Murder, opened at the Olney Theatre Center.
This classic is more of a character study than a whodunit. Margot Wendice (Nisi Sturgis) and her playboy husband, Tony (Ashley Smith), seemed to have worked out the problems of their marriage. Margot ended her affair with Max Halliday (Cameron McNary), an American mystery writer, and Tony has gotten a job. It is when Max returns to England for a visit that things begin to unravel.
Clues abound in the unfolding of the tale, so be watchful. Also remember the theory that if a butterfly flaps its wings, it can change everything, and this thriller has lots of butterflies. Even if you remember the popular 1954 movie the popular movie, you will still find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat. For those who do not know or recall the film, they will be quickly drawn into the characters and plotline.
This is due not only to Knott’s finely crafted script, but to the impeccable direction of Jason King Jones. The pacing is fast and visually compelling and each twist gets just enough attention to keep eyes focused in the right direction. More like the series, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, the question is not who the culprit is or why the deed was done, but if and how the perpetrator will be caught.
Ashley Smith is a perfect Tony Wendice – charming, cunning, and a real snake. Although we quickly dislike his character, we eagerly await his presence on stage. Smith lets us see into Tony’s mind through his expressions, as he covers up his actions by quickly making excuses on his feet.
Nisi Sturgis plays the wife who keeps allowing her husband to run her life, with just the right amount of unhappiness and hope that things will be better. This is the 50s in England where divorce would have been a scandal, and women often were trapped in loveless marriages. Sturgis has just the right amount of sophistication and vulnerability.
McNary, as the ex-boyfriend, proves quite capable, especially in Act II where he uses his skills as a writer to try to save the day.
James Konicek is the blackguard Captain Lesgate. His rough British accent and demeanor make even this villain more human. I actually felt some sympathy for him as he got caught in Tony’s evil web.
Alan Wade portrays the very British policeman, Inspector Hubbard. Is Hubbard smarter than he appears? Wade is very adept as the Inspector, as he believably dupes the Wendices and Halliday, as well as the audience, and fortunately, Wade’s character never falls into a stereotype.
Benjamin Ramos is the young policeman, and additional voices are provided by Ned Cramer, Stephen Z. Kaufman, Delegate Ben Kramer, and Kathleen Quinn.
Charlie Calvert’s set design is perfect vintage 1950s upper middle class. The multiple levels allow for visual variation and help create wonderful focal points for the action. Calvert let us know this is a fancy apartment, not a house, with his floating ceiling beams and moldings. We know before the play starts that the residents are very comfortable, but not royalty or millionaires.
The Costume Design by Seth Gilbert also helps create the mood of the times. These are lovely dresses but not designer gowns, the suits are fine quality, but not hand-tailored. He even has the American writer’s suit look slightly more casual than the British attire. Even small details like a woman’s purse accurately reflect the era and social standing of the character.
Sonya Dowhaluk’s excellent lighting design helped to create and sustain the mood and suspense. Lights stream in just the right place and go on and off to help keep the tension going. The opening music and other sound effects, designed by Roc Lee, also help reconstruct the era while creating suspense – as British phones sounded very different than American ones.
In a time now when rotary phones are only dim memories to those of us under 50, Dial M for Murder still rings true. Olney Theatre Center’s on-the-edge-of-your-seat production presses all the right buttons.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.