Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cloverdale Playhoiuse: "Dial M for Murder"

Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

The well crafted three-act script of Dial M for Murder is given a fine-tuned interpretation by director Fiona Macleod's veteran ensemble at The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Wrtitten by Frederick Knott, whose Wait Until Dark played at Cloverdale in its 2013 season, this 1952 thriller and his most popularly successful play is not a traditional "whodunnit"; it is clear early on that English ex-professional tennis player Tony Wendice [Stephen Dubberley] is plotting to have his wife murdered. He married Margot [Brittney Herndon] for her money, and after he discovers her brief affair with American tv murder mystery writer Max Halliday [Michael Buchanan], he intends to inherit all of her estate upon her death by blackmailing Captain Lesgate [Matthew Givens], a Cambridge University acquaintance who has had a series of illegal escapades in the intervening 25 years since they were at university, and who like many others "has his price".

When Tony's well-hatched "perfect crime" goes awry, and Margot kills her assailant, it is up to intrepid Inspector Hubbard [Cushing Phillips, III] to unravel the elaborate details (a love letter, blackmail notes, an attache case full of money, a missing handbag, and several latchkeys) to entrap the villain.

Played on Mike Winkelman's detailed set, punctuated with instrumentals of songs popular in the 1950s that also comment on the action ["Stardust", "Ebb Tide", "My Foolish Heart"], and dressed in Danny Davidson's and Mariah Reilly's period character driven costumes, the focus is thereby on old-fashioned storytelling.

Ms. Macleod has confidence in her actors to truthfully communicate Knott's sophisticated language and behavior of mostly upper-middle class Londoners; so, while modern investigative procedures and technology provide shortcuts to the rotary-dialed telephones and gumshoe police procedures in Dial M for Murder, audiences can give over their collective attention to figuring out the contrivances of the plot twists and the characters' motives and relationships.

Ms. Herndon appears as a socially confident woman who loves and trusts her husband, ignorant of his discovery of her affair and of his plans to have her killed; she wants to keep secret her relationship with ex-lover Max, and naively believes that Max and Tony can be friends. When she dispatches her would-be murderer, her character takes on another more layered dimension, and the subtle changes in her relationships with both men bring audiences to her side.

Mr. Buchanan's return to the local stage is most welcome. His natural demeanor and gradual development of trust and mistrust of Margot and Tony has him emerge as quietly heroic.

Mr. Givens brings a credible down-at-heels quality to the blackmailed murderer, and Mr. Phillips gives a mildly "Colombo-esque" delivery of some of the play's most melodramatic dialogue; since the play's ending is determined by the Inspector's deductive abilities, Mr. Phillips' portrayal has audiences always connected to his words and thought processes. With the assistance of officer Thompson [William Flowers, III], an importantly imposing presence to help thwart the crime, Mr. Phillips connects the evidence for us in clear and entertaining ways.

Acting honors here, though, go to Mr. Dubberley's complex depiction of Tony. Villains are often the most enjoyable to watch; we might despise their behavior while admiring their intellect. Mr. Dubberley exudes assurance in his roles of loving husband and trusted friend, while simultaneously plotting the most heinous of crimes without any hint of bad conscience or guilt. Cold and calculating, Mr. Dubberley's Tony is a character we love to hate.

English dialects were a little heavy-handed at times, and scene changes could be tightened up to sustain the suspense, but all-in-all, this production of Dial M for Murder will keep audiences involved and thrilled at following the plot to its deserved outcome.