Sunday, January 13, 2019

Dial M for Murder at Lakewood

Heath Koerschgen, Jacob Lee Smith, and Clara-Liis Hillier
By Tina Arth

If we know the who, the why, the where, and the how of a murder, how can it still be a mystery? Lakewood Center for the Arts’ production of Frederick Knott’s classic 1952 Dial M for Murder answers the question with a smart, elegant show that keeps newbies guessing while offering Dial M veterans the fun of watching for tells. Director David Sikking and his able cast ensure that the now 67-year-old play retains a contemporary flavor, despite changes in mores and technology in the intervening years.

The key to this elegant murder mystery is just this: will the villain be caught, and if so, how? Urbane retired tennis champ Tony Wendice tries to pull off the Holy Grail of crime – the “perfect murder.” The intended victim is his wealthy wife Margot, who has ended a brief affair with American TV writer Max Halliday. While Max (now relegated to the friend zone) is visiting, Tony conspires with an old school acquaintance, the corrupt Captain Lesgate, to do the deed (thus ensuring that Tony will inherit Margot’s substantial estate).  The action speeds up when Tony and Max go out for the evening, leaving Margot home alone and a perfect target for the assassin. Things go exactly as planned until the end of Act I, when Tony’s plot goes horribly awry. Act II is devoted to unraveling the murderous mess, helped along by Halliday’s imagination, a classic bumbling detective, a purloined letter, a mass of cash, inexplicably unlocked doors, and other nifty plot points to keep the audience on its toes.

Jacob Lee Smith handles the role of Tony with a light touch – charming, but not so smarmy that we initially hate him, and he smoothly lets his dark side shine whenever Margot’s back is turned. Clara-Liis Hillier is vulnerable, sensitive and sincere as Margot, and her palpable fear makes her battle with Lesgate (Tom Mounsey) a white-knuckle ride.  Heath Koerschgen (Max Halliday) really shines in Act II, as he glibly uses his screenwriter background to construct an elaborate, Hollywood-worthy explanation of how the crime might have played out – and he gives the role a subtlety that left me hard pressed to spot the point at which he starts to take his fantastic scenario seriously.

From the moment I saw Don Alder (Chief Inspector Hubbard) awkwardly kneeling in the doorway, I knew I was watching the authentic archetype for a universe of Columbo-like detectives – slightly clueless, but never an over-the-top buffoon, until he finally shows us (and the rest of the cast) the brilliance of his intellectual sleight of hand. The entire cast (except Koerschgen, the American) adroitly delivers their dialogue in the requisite, class-appropriate British accents.

John Gerth’s scenic design does a fine job of (literally) setting the scene – detailed, elegant, immediately conveying the upper-crust world Tony so enjoys (courtesy of Margot’s wealth). Grace O’Malley’s costumes fill the same role for the actors – I was especially taken with Tony’s shiny suit and Margot’s peignoir, but the hemline on Margot’s first dress is somewhat disconcerting.  Special props to Jeff Forbes’ lighting design – there is no change of scenery, yet the set is never static and the mood shifts nicely through the use of darkness and light.

Dial M can seem like a long show, but director Sikking paces his actors and uses all of the tech at his disposal to keep the audience fully involved, and he does full justice to Knox’s brilliant, tightly plotted show.  Despite the disappearance of phones with actual dials, Lakewood’s current offering is every bit as engaging and fun as in any of its previous stage, film, and television incarnations.

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