A guilty pleasure at Bucks County Playhouse season opener
The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, enters its 80th season with Frederick Knott’s classic thriller, Dial M for Murder. Knott (1916–2002) wrote three plays during his career, with Wait Until Dark, his third, as the only one that came close to the success of Dial M for Murder, his first. Based on the smart, stylish production on display here, one could only wish that he had written more.
The play takes place in 1952 London at the apartment of Tony and Margot Wendyce (JD Taylor and Olivia Gilliatt). Tony is a former professional tennis player now selling sports equipment. He discovered that his wealthy wife had a brief affair with American mystery writer Max Halliday (Clifton Duncan), now in London on business. Tony plots a perfect revenge on the pair, blackmailing Swann (Grant Harrison), a former schoolmate turned petty criminal, into murdering Margot for ₤1,000. When the attempted murder ends in Swann’s death, Margot is tried, convicted, and sentenced to die. Still in love with Margot, Max does not believe in her guilt, while police Inspector Hubbard (Graeme Malcolm) has his suspicions aroused by incongruities surrounding Margot’s case. With time running out, will Tony get away with his revenge and inherit his wife’s fortune?
Mike Donahue’s direction creates a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game played out before the audience’s eyes. In this he is well-served by his cast. Olivia Gilliatt rings true as the loving wife whose genuine bewilderment and innocence only seem to prove her guilt. Clifton Duncan portrays Max as a stalwart friend to Margot, seeking ways to use his writer’s imagination on her behalf.
JD Taylor’s Tony is a clever scoundrel, quick-wittedly improvising plausible responses and behaviors while watching his original scheme unravel. Most delightful of all is Graeme Malcom’s experienced and mature portrayal of Inspector Hubbard, his plodding, by-the-book behavior masking a clever and insightful investigative mind.
Scenic designer Anna Louizos has come up with a spacious, well-furnished apartment home for the Wendyces, lit (both in daylight and in darkness) by Scott Zielinski. Sound designer Bart Fasbender provides a 50’s cool jazz score that fits the action and grounds the play in its time. Tristan Raines has come up with costumes that reflect the era and the class level of the characters.
Like all good mysteries, Dial M for Murder takes its time setting things up at the beginning. But from the moment when Tony’s scheme is put into action, the audience’s concentration is held to the very end. For an exciting, tension-filled evening in the theatre, I recommend you make your way to New Hope to enjoy the guilty pleasure that is Dial M for Murder!