In forefront: Ruibo Qian (left) and Kate Abbruzzese in "Dial M for Murder." Photo by Jim Cox
atta If a mystery is well written, every line moves the story forward.
Frederick Knott’s play “Dial M for Murder” is a well-written mystery. Created for BBC Television in 1952 it moved quickly to a London’s West End stage and then to Broadway. Most famously, it was turned into a film two years later directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.
Place it in the hands of veteran playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and you have a “Dial M” for the 21st century. His commissioned adaptation for the Old Globe Theatre possesses all the twists and turns of Knott’s original play and the stylishness of Hitchcock’s film, but even though the story remains set in the 1950s, there’s one contemporary invention: The lover of London socialite Margot Wendice (Kate Abbruzzese) with whom she’s deceiving self-centered husband Tony (Nathan Darrow) is a woman (Ruibo Qian). (In case you’re wondering, man-about-town actor Bob Cummings portrayed Margot’s lover in the movie.)
Other than making Tony a failed writer rather than a retired tennis player – a device that enriches the tale’s irony – Hatcher stays quite true to Knott, a playwright he admires. “Dial M’s” is a simple premise: Tony decides to murder his wife for her money in a plot that involves both blackmailing her and the man Lesgate (Ruy Iskandar) that he hires to do the deed.
How Tony’s plan goes down is far from simple.
A stage mystery like this one requires active listening. It’s a talky affair by necessity, especially through most of the first act, and should your mind wander you’re likely to miss an important clue. “Dial M for Murder” is what Hatcher calls an “inverted mystery,” one in which we know who the killer is from the beginning, so it’s not a whodunit. The attraction for the audience is, like in a cracking good episode of “Columbo,” witnessing the villain setting up his crime then later covering his tracks.
The five-person cast onstage in the intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre performs with panache while avoiding what had to be a temptation to overplay their hands in a true genre piece like this. Darrow is all smug energy and calculation as the morally vacant Tony. Abbruzzese could be one of Hitch’s cool blondes, but she gives her Margot some fire and resolve beneath the rich veneer. As Maxine Hadley, Margot’s mystery-writing paramour, Qian is the smartest person in the room, including the investigating Inspector Hubbard (John Tufts) and especially including Tony.
Under the splendid direction of Stafford Arima, the actors are frequently in motion, making the most of the small space and emphasizing where they are and where things are (as in potential clues) in the evolving mystery. It’s best to keep your eyes as well as your ears open throughout the two-hour drama.
Lighting design by Amanda Zieve, sound design by Leon Rothenberg and snippets of sultry music heighten the ambiance and the suspense. Ryan Park’s costumes, particularly for Margot, would please Hitchcock.
Fight director Rachel Flesher deserves plaudits too for the disturbingly believable attack on Margot by Lesgate. To say more about it would constitute a spoiler.
There’s a lot of exposition and explaining in the script, both before and after this confrontation. Mystery lovers will be indulgent. Others? Well, there’s always those gorgeous costumes, witty byplay and a phone that startles the hell out of you when it rings.
“Dial M for Murder” runs through Aug. 28 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.