Dial M for Murder
Stop for a moment and consider how incredibly difficult it is to make something interesting when more than half the audience has probably seen either the movie version of the play or multiple other productions of the play over the span of years he/she has lived.
Yet, this is exactly the challenge that any director has when working with “an old chestnut,” especially a mystery. The actors must bring life to the characters, they must create a tension so strong that the audience forgets it has seen this play before and knows how it “turns out.” The actors must make the action real, interesting, and not necessarily predetermined, even when it is.
Such is the case with University of Texas’s production of Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott playing at the B. Iden Payne Theatre through October 13, 2013.
Before the play begins, the audience has time to experience the elegant living space of what appears to be an upper-class home. That the stage in the theatre is of considerable size merely adds to the sense of richness and comfort. Costumes also are elegant and the shimmering satin gown Margot wears in the opening scene establishes another time, perhaps the late 1940’s or 1950’s. As the actors begin to speak, the audience recognizes the authenticity of English upper-class dialect (and later Scottish dialect – Inspector Hubbard). Much has been done before the play has barely begun to create this world into which we, the audience members, step. With excellent technical support from sound and light crews, scenic designers and crew, costumers, props, and others, the actors take over for it is now their challenge to breathe life into the illusion.
For the most part, the actors captured the essence of their characters. Harrison Harvey seemed to do a particularly good job of delivering a nuanced performance of internal complexity. His character was complex: cold, calculating, smooth, in-control, deceiving, anticipating, ruthless, and ultimately surprised and cornered. All the while, he moved about the stage with an ease and grace befitting his character. He seemed to be in the skin of Tony Wendice. And, his voice was strong and clear…I could hear clearly what he said.
Juliet Robb, as the wealthy Margot Wendice, had a grace and vulnerability worthy of her character. Unfortunately, I was not convinced that she and her husband had reconciled and that they had rediscovered the relationship of an earlier, happier time as she professes.
For me, the element most missing in this production was the chemistry of relationship between Tony and Margo, Margo and Max, and Tony and Max. I expected Max to experience strong feelings when seeing Margo after a year’s separation and catch hints of his internal struggle to maintain a seemingly friendly relationship with this woman whom he still loved deeply. I wanted to catch him failing in that deception to the extent that her husband has something to suspect.
Dial M for Murder runs through October 13, 2013. For tickets, go to texasperformingarts.org or call 512-471-4454. Future productions include Our Country’s Good (Oct. 18-27), Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Feb. 14-23, 2014), and In the Heights (Apr. 9-20, 2014).