Let’s hear it for the chestnut. Theatrically, that’s a piece that transcends time or trends to provide solid, reliable entertainment no matter where or when it’s produced.
“Dial ‘M’ for Murder” is a chestnut, a ripe and tasty one, from the 1950s, when mysteries or thrillers were as well-made as other plays and in which full-bodied characterization was given the same importance as plot.
Thank New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse for reviving Frederick Knott’s engaging play that provides something absorbing to consider: whether a perfect murder can be planned, committed, and gotten away with.
It also gives us characters to whom we become attached or fear and touches on mundane matters — such as writing for television or dressing for an event — that enhances the overall reality of a cat-and-mouse crime yarn.
Though Michael Donahue’s production can benefit from more tension in crucial spots, and in creating a stronger relationship between the characters, it is, in general, as taut as Knott’s writing and keeps you involved, especially in the second act.
Knott is as clever at setting up the murder to come as he is in devising its details and bringing them to be. One of his characters is a novelist and television writer (Clifton Duncan). He has to cook up a new homicide every week and talks about how he gathers his material and builds it into a compelling story.
The suspense in “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” is not about whether or when a crime will occur — that’s a given — but whether it can be pulled off as neatly and flawlessly as we hear it conceived and rehearsed. Knott doesn’t take away surprise as much as he builds anxiety, anticipation, and dread about the imminent killing.
Donahue and his cast are right there with him. This “Dial ‘M’” takes well measured care to introduce the characters and set the plotters’ preparations in motion, so there’s an edge when the lights dim and the murder scene commences as described.
Mystery is afoot, and it feels good to revel in the old-fashioned apprehension a shrewdly crafted piece can generate.
All is engrossing, but one part of Donahue’s staging can be quickly and easily improved. It’s the critical moment when the murderer makes his move and shows his resolve to earn his fee. Perhaps to enhance suspense, Donahue lessens the pace and has all proceed slowly, almost as if time has momentarily stopped, while a gloved hand hovers in mid-air for five seconds longer than is good for it.
That pause doesn’t ruin this “Dial ‘M,’” — it is way too well done for that — but it turns a charged dramatic moment into a melodramatic one.
Gasps will come subsequently. Donahue’s production promptly returns to being clockwork, following through with the kind of meticulous touches that added interest to earlier sequences, e.g. the painstaking precautions Tony (JD Taylor), a jealous husband and mastermind of the crime, takes to avoid leaving fingerprints or the care taken to make sure the audience sees the killer (Grant Harrison) do something that becomes a critical bit of evidence.
Donahue’s is a generally precise and attentive production that intelligently covers all bases and makes sure the audience knows all it must to appreciate Knott’s handiwork.
One aspect in which it can get stronger is in giving more texture to the way the characters relate. For instance, after the murder, we know something that has motivated Tony all along, that his wife, Margot (Olivia Gilliatt), has had a brief but meaningful affair with the television writer. You can see where Tony may want to hide his awareness in the initial scene that brings the two together. Following the murder, this friction between them has to be pronounced. It would also be helpful to see more indication that Margot and the writer, Max, were once lovers, and more reaction from Margot in the late sequences when she is bewildered and less in command than when we first see her.
I know. I have included a lot of spoilers. They won’t damage enjoyment of this worthy “Dial ‘M,” and I was careful — I hope — to keep the big shocker unmentioned. (Not that it makes a difference. I know “Dial ‘M’” from the Hitchcock movie and from seeing it on stage, the first time with Joan Fontaine as Margot, and I was still anxious, in the right way, as the major event of the play neared.)
Donahue deftly establishes the milieu in which Tony and Margot live. They don’t make a great deal of money, but Margot has an inheritance, and they can be genteel — nights out at the theater, dinners with friends — without being posh.
The cast has much to recommend it. Olivia Gilliatt is a congenial and likeable Margot, who comes across as a smart, honest woman who is able to let loose and have a little fun. Clifton Duncan conveys the literary talent and sharp mind of the writer/paramour, Max. He and Gilliatt establish the easy elegance of Donahue’s staging in their first scene.
Graeme Malcolm is wittily observant as the London detective assigned to investigate the murder. Malcolm shrewdly keeps his character’s snoopiness and suspicions nonchalant. He makes the most of the questioning techniques Knott knowingly provides for him.
Grant Harrison doesn’t seem particularly sinister or harrowed as the hired murderer. A grace that comes with the character’s class if not his circumstances — he’s an ex-con — filters any coarseness or sense that this is a man who commits crimes for his living.
JD Taylor brings youthful energy and determination as Tony. Taylor always lets you see Tony’s devilish mind at work. He never lets the character relax totally, keeping him just the right side of jumpy and defensive even when on the surface he is being cool and offhand.
Taylor can be a tad callow at times, but he makes up for it by demonstrating time and again how agilely Tony thinks on his feet and gets out of tight corners.
Donahue does not set a specific time for his “Dial ‘M.” Sometimes it seems set in the early 1950s, which is where Tristan Raines’s spot-on costumes takes us — I love the little bow ties finishing the ribbons on Margot’s dress. Sometimes it has a more contemporary air, seen in Taylor’s demeanor.
Anna Louizos creates another apartment you wouldn’t mind moving into. Bart Fasbender’s sound design, especially in terms of steps and opening doors, becomes important as one considers clues. Scott Zielinski’s lighting adds to the reality and mood of the murder scene.
Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, June 16. $55 to $65. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.