Friday, February 2, 2024

"Dial M for Murder" at Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater is bringing a new adaptation of a classic thriller to their stage. Local prolific playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher has applied his sharp wit and clever plotting to Frederick Knott's 1952 play Dial M for Murder (later adapted into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock). In an interview in the program, Jeffrey noted that the first task of adaptation is not to screw it up. He didn't. I've seen the play a couple of times before, but I'm not familiar enough to know what was changed or tweaked, other than the obvious ones noted in that interview - the murderous husband is a failed novelist rather than former tennis celebrity, and the American writer named Max that his wife has an affair with is a woman. Without taking anything away from the original, these slight changes add a whole new layer to the story and make it feel more modern. Homosexual relationships very much existed in the '50s, they just weren't talked about. Much like the new adaptation of the classic Western Shane last summer, this new adaptation adds back into the narrative the people that were erased. But rest assured, this Dial M is still a thrilling twisty delight! See it on the thrust stage through February 25.

This play isn't a whodunit, as an early scene shows the aforementioned failed novelist Tony Wendice blackmailing an old school chum to kill his wealthy wife Margot. Tony caught her cheating with American writer Maxine Hadley, who has recently returned to London. The fact that it's a relationship between two women makes it more understandable why Margot, a member of the wealthy society, is afraid to leave her husband and pursue a relationship with a woman, and it makes the blackmail factor higher. So Tony starts plotting to kill her and continue living on her money, without the complications of a cheating wife. He lays out his seemingly foolproof plan (which, yes, involves a phone call), which of course hits a snag or two. He has to come up with Plan B on the fly, trying to explain the events of that evening to the detective in a way that doesn't arouse suspicion. Maybe it's not so easy to plan the perfect murder after all.*

Margo (Gretchen Egolf) and Max (Lori Vega)
(photo by Dan Norman)
This five-person cast is mostly non-local, but I can't hold that against them because they're all so perfect. The highlight for me is David Andrew Macdonald, who is the most delightful would-be murderer you could ever find. He plays so many layers as Tony - the falsely loving husband, the sneaky blackmailer, the innocent with the police while his wheels are furiously spinning. Subtle choices make us see that what Tony is thinking is different from what he's saying out loud, and it's pure entertainment to watch. Gretchen Egolf (last seen on the Guthrie stage as Blanche DuBois in 2010 - the first review I ever wrote!) is a strong and sympathetic Margot, Lori Vega is the bold and confident Max, Brian Thomas Anderson is the epitome of the detective who knows more than he's letting on, and Peter Christian Hansen, the one local in the cast (who played the role of Tony in the Gremlin's production in 2018), is charmingly smarmy as the hired hit man. Kudos to the Guthrie's resident fight director Aaron Preusse for choreographing a scary and realistic attempted murder scene, and to frequent vocal and dialect coach Keely Wolter for helping the cast with the understaned British accents.

Inspector Hubbard (Brian Thomas Abraham) gets to the bottom of things
with Gretchen Egolf as Margot and David Andrew Macdonald as Tony
(photo by Dan Norman)
Director Tracy Brigden keeps the tension and suspense level high, aided by the sound design which, in addition to realistic sounds of rain, thunder, and police sirens, imparts a constant sense of intrigue and foreboding. It goes hand in hand with the lighting design - bright flashes of lightning and moody dimness when things get dark. This mid-century modern Londen flat is smashing, all dark wood and bold colors, low couches and tall bookshelves. This is a very prop-heavy show - silk stockings, scissors, keys, oh my! - and it's all pulled off flawlessly. And if you'll pardon the pun, these '50s era costumes are To. Die. For. The whole cast is dressed sharply, but I'm so glad Max is a woman, if only for the opportunity to drool over her gorgeous array of chic dresses, gloves, coats (thank goodness it's cold in London!), and shoes. The green plaid sheath dress with purple accents and matching coat with fur trim is absolutely stunning. (Sound design by John Gromeda, lighting design by Xavier Pierce, scenic design by Walt Spangler, costume design by Valerie Therese Bart.)

This is how you update a classic, that maybe didn't need updating, but that makes it better and more modern, but still thrilling and suspenseful. See this modern classic through February 25 at the Guthrie.