At this time of year, many of us turn to It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, or A Muppet’s Christmas Carol for warm, fuzzy, happy feelings, but some of us prefer darker or subversive holiday fare: Die Hard, Batman Returns, Gremlins, or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. If you find yourself in this second category, Everyman Theatre’s production of Dial M for Murder has neither kisses beneath the mistletoe nor goodwill among humankind, but it’s a thrilling, fashionable, and deliciously dark holiday treat for us “bah humbug!” folks, deftly directed by Everyman’s Artistic Director and Founder Vincent M. Lancisi.
Prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher adapted Frederick Knott’s famous work in 2022, and with his background in composing a myriad of Sherlock Holmes mysteries for the stage, his pedigree in adapting detective stories with all their deceitfulness, disguises, and dastardly folks shines through in this brilliant Baltimore premiere.
At the center of the tale of suspense is a lurid love triangle, and the title of the play already tells us this will end with at least one less living character. Set in 1952 London at the fashionable home of unhappily wed Margot (Beth Hylton) and Tony Wendice (Tony Nam), the Hitchcock classic has had subtle but meaningful updates.
Neither married for love but the couple is only keeping up the charade for respectability’s sake. Tony is a self-styled “serious writer,” who never succeeded in publishing his own work but is moving up the ranks at a publishing house. He has married Margot purely for her wealth, while she married Tony only to appease her spinster aunt and to inherit the large family trust. Tony’s friend, fellow author Maxine Hadley (Megan Anderson), and Margot have been engaged in a passionate affair. Maxine is an upcoming writer about to release her first, much-anticipated thriller novel—and like all writers, she can only talk about her project and all the time she spent researching murders. (The same-sex affair, too, subtly shines a light on the horrible repercussions of being outed at this time.)
As Maxine and Margot sip bourbons before leaving to attend a “dreadful” mystery play together, the witty writer shares the five major motives for killing: money, jealousy, revenge, fear, and protection of a loved one. The scene is all set for a murder plot to emerge.
Maxine says in the first scene that there may be perfect murders, but even with all her research, she does not know of one: if we know about the crime it has failed to be perfect. A good mystery story may begin with the body and clues, and we slowly piece together the puzzle until the murderer, motive, and method all come into view. Dial M for Murder is a different beast altogether: we know all of the above from the beginning.
Tony is planning his wife’s murder for several of the above reasons, so this play is not a whodunit but a study in cold calculation, suspense, and waiting to see if the characters stay on script in the expected murder plotline. Tony blackmails a ne’er-do-well Cambridge chum, Lesgate (Danny Gavigan), to off his philandering spouse so he can get his paws on her aunt’s fortune. As Tony convinces Lesgate, Nam slowly transforms from using a cane for a fake limp, standing more upright and in charge, and finally swaggering once he shares his nefarious plot of how the murder will go. Gavigan as Lesgate is a two-bit baddie and not nearly as bright as Tony, and we can all but see the gears turning in his head as he tries to follow along.
It seems like a foolproof plot until something unexpected happens … and the plot thickens. In the second act, Maxine and Inspector Hubbard (a quick-witted and inventive Bruce Randolph Nelson) join forces and their particular skill sets to uncover the true nature of the titular murder. If Chekhov has his infamous gun, there are several crucial props throughout the play that incriminate or exonerate: the house’s missing latchkey, a pair of silk stockings, a purloined love letter, and not one but two blackmail letters that keep switching hands. Try keeping track of all these!
On opening night, it was fun to hear audience members whisper their predictions and realizations to one another. And there were more than a few collective gasps at key turning points in the plot.
If you are already a Hitchcock fan, you will really appreciate how this production ably deals with the fact that it’s all a lot of tell and little show. Hatcher’s witty wordplay and Lancisi’s well-paced direction make this thriller, well, thrilling. The self-referential plot has many inside jokes about how murder plots and the conventions of a thriller novel work. (For example, during the murder scene, we hear Maxine in the background discussing her own suspense story on BBC radio.)
And if the story is all new to you: how much more fun it must be!
All three leads are excellent. Nam is charming as the psychopathic (or maybe just opportunistic) Tony; he plays a doting husband to Margot and a good friend/publicist to Maxine, all while knowing of their affair, blackmailing them, and trying to destroy their lives. Hylton plays Margot as a woman who is braver and more resourceful than the social mores at the time allow. While she fears being outed by an unknown blackmailer and is seemingly meek, she also shows her resolve when confronted with danger. And the always captivating Anderson brings wit and worldliness to Maxine, a woman who knows who she is and what she wants, again, at a time when women were not to express their desires, competence, and confidence so openly. They are supported in smaller roles by Gavigan and Nelson, who drive much of the action as the murderer and inspector (both important roles in a murder mystery).
Daniel Ettinger’s mid-century modern set design, David Burduck’s finely tailored suits and women’s dress designs, Megumi Katayama’s sound design and score, Denise O’Brien’s wigs, and Harold F. Burgess II’s lighting design together recreate this fashionable time period with sharp, vintage details. Fight director Lewis Shaw has choreographed a gripping murder scene and Gary Logan served as dialect coach for the British and transatlantic accents.
This holiday season, if you are looking for a little less “God bless us, everyone” but still desire a classic (and one that has infidelity, blackmail, murder, and mayhem), just dial “M” for a marvelous suspense story masterfully performed and directed.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Dial M for Murder plays through January 7, 2023, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets (starting at $29) online or contact the box office by phone at 410-752-2208 (Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and Saturday, 12-4 p.m.) or email [email protected].
Accessibility: Everyman emphasizes their commitment to accessibility for all, including those with economic challenges, with Pay What You Choose prices.
The cast and creative credits are online here.
The digital program may be accessed here.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged, though not required. Everyman’s complete health and safety guide is here.