Sunday, April 30, 2017

"Dial 'M' for Murder": IRT makes good connection to classic suspense drama

I try not to be a hoarder of printed matter, but theater and concert programs will tend to mount up over a full schedule of attended performances. Among the programs I find hardest to recycle are Indiana Repertory Theatre's. Glossy, informative, and well laid-out, they get my attention from cover to cover (OK, I only glance at the list of donors, vital as they are).

Police detective (second from left) shares his thinking about the murder with Max Halliday and the Weddices .
Particularly worth saving and occasionally revisiting are the brief statements by IRT production teams, as well as the behind-the-scenes interviews. Oh, and the director's essays, and the dramaturg's, and of course executive artistic director Janet Allen's.

For Frederick Knott's "Dial 'M' for Murder," I was especially fascinated by what scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson had to say. She focuses on one crucial visual element: "the upper surround (which we've dubbed the 'mega-cornice' [that] sits above the apartment, separate but echoing its architecture."

This "echo" receives projected black-and-white film images during the phone calls that are essential to the story. We see partial facial features of the person at the other end of the call. Just to see the scheming Tony Weddice's eyes close briefly when he learns from his panicked wife, Margot, that his hired killer has himself been killed by the intended victim speaks volumes.

James Still directs the production with his usual sure hand. But I'm tempted to go on and on about the space in which the suspense drama takes place. The scene is a posh London flat in 1952, when Britain was beginning to feel its oats once again after the dark night of World War II. That upper surround signals both protection and looming menace — perfect for a play that centers on a frayed marital bond heading toward a final rupture.

Sutton-Johnson describes the projected images as "featur[ing] odd angles, odd scales, and odd croppings, creating in the
audience a subtle sense of discomfort or imbalance as our story unfolds."  True enough, but I detected discomforting angles and dimensions in the designed room as well. Everything about the space works to reinforce the dramatic milieu.

What could possibly go wrong?: Tony and Max will go out to a stag dinner, Margot will stay home scrapbooking.
The range of scale is impressive: huge curtains to the audience's left covering glass doors opening out onto the terrace; to the right upstage, the set-back entrance to the apartment, allowing for silhouetted figures when the door is opened, as well as for such details as Detective Inspector Hubbard's deliberately picking up unseen the wrong topcoat on his way out. And out the door, our eyes are drawn to the carpeted staircase and the pivotal hiding place of the latchkey. Placement of props also reinforces the drama: the fatal scissors are picked up by Margot about as far as possible from where they are normally kept. Curtains, key, scissors: all crucial items, large and small, are where and what they should be.

The Weddices' apartment bespeaks wealth and glamour, the superficial glow of well-appointed domesticity. The story undercuts this almost immediately, as we learn of Tony's lingering resentment of Margot's unfaithfulness, particularly with an American friend, Max Halliday, on top of the subtle humiliation of his being a retired tennis star living off his wife's wealth.

Matt Mueller conveyed the smoothness with which Tony launches his scheme, and his attention to detail, which helps him
Tony Weddice tightens the screws on Captain Lesgate to rope him into his plot.
manipulate an old college acquaintance, Captain Lesgate, into accepting the rub-out assignment. His performance Saturday evening morphed skillfully into Tony's badly nicked savoir-faire ending in his undoing. As Margot, Sarah Ruggles reflected the wife's guilty conscience, nervousness and mounting puzzlement at the plot she is subjected to. Frankly, I felt she did much more with the role than Grace Kelly in the Hitchcock movie. (Lindsay Jones' music and sound design was at least the equal of the film's, by the way.)

As Captain Lesgate, Steve Wojtas fully lived up to the play's portrait of a man with a checkered past backed into a corner and recruited to carry out a master manipulator's revenge. As the dogged detective, IRT veteran Robert Neal displayed his usual command of the kind of role where determination and an imposing intelligence tramples every obstacle.

Christopher Allen reflected Max Halliday's controlled anxiety and discretion, qualities that burst free in the second act into a seasoned mystery writer's confidence that he has the perfect solution for rescuing Margot from her doom. In the play's height of dramatic irony, he outlines the plot Tony had indeed tried to carry out. It's a shame the actor muffed another touch of irony, a first-act line crucial to the play's meaning: "In stories things turn out as the author plans them to....In real life they don't — always."

The accidents of real life are this play's topic, insofar as the most well-studied plans rarely yield perfect results. Nothing that our intelligence and intentions, whether for good or ill, propose is adequate for what life is likely to produce. This production drives home that lesson with consistent flair.

If a tightly plotted suspense play seems too artificial, it may still be unwise to shrug it off as unrelated to how we who are not murder-minded actually live. I'm reminded of the wonderful title of a collection of literary essays by Marvin Mudrick: "Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?"

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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