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Suspense reigns supreme in University Theatre at N.C. State’s superlative production of Dial “M” for Murder by Frederick Knott. The third and last show of TheatreFest 2005 is set in London in 1952, entirely in the living of a posh London flat, superbly recreated by scenic designer Crawford “Corky” Pratt and expertly lit to heighten the dramatic tension by lighting designer Jeff Besselman.
Dial “M” is not a whodunit. It a thriller, in the best sense of the word. The central couple, Tony and Margot Wendice (Gregor McElvogue and Dorothy Recasner Brown), have a troubled marriage. Tony is a bored and insanely jealous former professional tennis player who married Margot for her money and her social position. When he strongly suspects that she has been unfaithful to him — he clandestinely spies on Margot and her American friend crime novelist Max Halliday (Will Sanders) while he cooks her an Italian dinner at his flat — Tony ruthlessly blackmails Captain Lesgate (Trey Hoover), an old school with a decidedly unsavory (shall we say, criminal) past, into strangling Margot.
After Tony sets the wheels in motion for murder, some funny and some not-so-funny things happen. To reveal them here would rob prospective ticket-buyers of some of the pleasure of watching the murderous machinations in Dial “M” unfold. Suffice it to say that there is a violent death and Inspector Hubbard (Pepper Jobe) and police constable Thompson arrive to investigate the murder. What happens next is what makes Dial “M” for Murder a classic thriller.
Director Fred Gorelick has done an outstanding job of keeping audience members on the edge of their seats. He really knows how to push all the right emotional buttons, at just the right times. The current acting edition of Dial “M” for Murder is subtitled “A Collage for Voices,” so Gorelick stages the show as a radio play, with suspenseful snippets of music, melodramatic narration, and some scenes beginning in the dark and continuing as the lights come up. He really gives sound designer David Jensen a workout, and Jensen is more than up to the task.
Dorothy Brown gives a richly detailed, heartfelt performance as poor, unhappy Margot Wendice, whose premarital fling with Max Halliday, before she met her future husband, has come back to haunt her. She never told Tony about Max, and Tony’s accidental discover of their formerly intimate relationship provides him with a motive for murder.
Brown, who is one of the Triangle’s finest actresses, is provocatively paired with Gregor McElvogue, who is a pip as an urbane sociopath who will stop at nothing to get what he wants which, in this case, is a wife whom he suspects of infidelity dead and her sizable fortune in his own bank account. Trey Hoover is also quite good as the reluctant Captain Lesgate, whom Tony threatens with utter ruin — and exposure to the police and imprisonment — if he does not kill Margot.
Will Sanders is impressive as Max Halliday, a warm and witty guy, especially when compared to the sardonic cold fish that Margot married; Pepper Job contributes a crisp characterization of Columbo-like unflappable Chief Inspector Hubbard, a clever and resourceful detective determined to discover and apprehend the killer, no matter how long it takes; and Shane Roland makes a memorable cameo appearance as a policeman named Thompson.
The wonderful wardrobe of early 1950s fashions — especially Dorothy Brown’s chic outfits — created by costume designers John C. McIlwee and Lisa Tireman also adds a dash of color and a smidgen of style to the sometimes somber proceedings. Thus, the current University Theatre at N.C. State presentation of Dial “M” for Murder has it all: taut staging, a stellar cast, and exceptional production values. Don’t miss it.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Dial “M” for Murder Friday, June 17, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 19, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, June 22-25, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m. in NCSU’s Thompson Theatre, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $13 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $15 Friday-Saturday ($6 N.C. State students and $11 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $13 Friday-Saturday other students, seniors, and NCSU faculty and staff). 919/515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=MURD. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/schedule.htm [inactive 2/08]. TheatreFest 2005 Postcard and Order Form: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/theatrefest/Brochure05.pdf [inactive 10/07]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=3061. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046912/.
Dial “M” for Murder by Hankow, China-born New York dramatist Frederick Knott (1916-2002) is the third and final show of TheatreFest 2005, a month of mysteries presented May 26-June 26 by University Theatre at N.C. State. UT will present this 1952 nail-biter by the author of Write Me a Murder (1961) and Wait Until Dark (1966) in rotating repertory with Appointment with Death by Dame Agatha Christie.
Dial “M” for Murder, under the direction of Reginald Denham, made its Broadway debut on Oct. 29, 1952 at the Plymouth Theatre. It transferred to the Booth Theatre on Jan. 11, 1954 and ran for a total of 552 performances, closing on Feb 27, 1954. The production starred Maurice Evans as Tony Wendice, Anthony Dawson as Captain Lesgate, Richard Derr as Max Halliday, Gusti Huber as Margot Wendice, and John Williams as Inspector Hubbard. Williams won the 1953 Tony Award® for Best Featured Actor in a Play.
In reviewing the 1952-54 production, The New York Times characterized Dial “M” for Murder as “original and remarkably good theatre — quiet in style but tingling with excitement underneath.” And the New York Herald-Tribune raved, “It’s a holiday for the whodunit fans, and, as such, it couldn’t be more welcome.”
The 1954 motion-picture version of the play, filmed in 3D and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted for the screen by playwright Frederick Knott, starred Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, Grace Kelly as Margot Mary Wendice, Robert Cummings as Mark Halliday, and John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard.
“I first heard of Dial ‘M’ by seeing the 1954 film version on television as a child in New York City,” recalls Fred Gorelick, who will direct the TheatreFest production that opens June 16th. “I directed a production of the play for the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem in 1987.”
He adds, “Dial ‘M’ is a beautifully written thriller. Far beyond the ingenuity of Frederick Knott’s plot, the characterizations of the play are richly delineated. The dialogue rings true and is often beautifully phrased.”
When the curtain rises, Gorelick says, “Margot Wendice (Dorothy Recasner Brown) is the loving wife of a recently former tennis pro, Tony Wendice (Gregor McElvogue). In 1952, star tennis players did not command the highly lucrative salaries they do today.
“Tony, not merely a social climber, but a sociopathic man, had intended all along to marry financially well. Recognizing the tenuous hold he has on his marriage after discovering an affair Margot had with Max Halliday (Will Sanders), an American writer, Tony pulls together what he deems to be a fool-proof method of disposing of his wife and inheriting her fortune, limited as it may be.
“The plan famously backfires,” Gorelick says, “and if your readers don’t know how it backfires, I am not going to reveal it here! As we have known from the second scene of the play who the murderer was, the play takes a fascinated view at how our anti-hero will get away with it.”
Gorelick notes, “Frederick Knott predates Columbo by many years! Our very own Columbo, in the form of an idiosyncratic inspector (Pepper Jobe), further complicates the knotty plot. The cast is rounded out by Captain Lesgate (Trey Hoover), a murderer-for-hire, and a policeman, Thompson (Shane Roland).”
In addition to director Fred Gorelick, the show’s production team includes set designer Corky Pratt, lighting designer Jeff Besselman, costume designers John C. McIlwee and Lisa Tireman, and sound designer David Jensen.
Gorelick says the play is set in 1952 in a garden flat in London, and the show’s period costumes — especially Ms. Brown’s — are breathtakingly beautiful. He adds, “This [production also] is a showcase for our student Jeff Besselman’s gifts as a lighting designer. Light, shadow, and darkness are as important to the production as any of the characters.”
Fred Gorelick says the UT cast and crew’s main challenge in staging Dial “M” for Murder is “maintaining the play’s tension throughout the performance.” He adds, “The inherent challenges [of] TheatreFest [are] always at hand: a brief rehearsal period while two other productions are in performance.
“In this case,” Gorelick explains, “the entire cast and its director are also involved with our production of Appointment with Death. Also, the current acting texts for DIAL ‘M’ come with a newly appointed subtitle: ‘A Collage for Voices.’ This phrase brings us the delightful challenge of an enveloping concept for the production.”
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Dial “M” for Murder Thursday-Friday, June 16 and 17, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 19, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, June 22-25, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m. in NCSU’s Thompson Theatre, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $13 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $15 Friday-Saturday ($6 N.C. State students and $11 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $13 Friday-Saturday other students, seniors, and NCSU faculty and staff). 919/515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=MURD. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/schedule.htm [inactive 2/08]. TheatreFest 2005 Postcard and Order Form: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/theatrefest/Brochure05.pdf [inactive 10/07]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=3061. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046912/.