PTC present a classic murder mystery

By Steve Coons, Red Pulse Writer

“Dial “M’ for Murder”8212;the Pioneer Theatre Company’s latest production8212;is a classic stage mystery. It was made into a spectacular film by Alfred Hitchcock, and is one of only three plays that Frederick Knott ever wrote. The production, directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb, is weighed down by a weak first act, but eventually manages to inspire the suspense expected from a play Hitchcock willingly adapted. Unfortunately, it happens late and only when the lead is offstage.

The play is set in England8212;more specifically, in the living room of Tony and Margot Wendice. Only a year before the action in the play, Tony, played by Fletcher McTaggart, was a professional tennis player who never wanted to settle down. His love interest, Margot, played by Amy Tribbey, was an heiress with a respectable amount of cash who never wanted to marry a touring tennis player. Then Max Halliday walked into the mix and stole Margot’s heart, only to return to his job in New York City after Margot suddenly turned cold. Tony then finally settled down, and married Margot for her money. But Tony’s change of heart occurs only after he sees Margot and Max eating spaghetti, and so, unbeknownst to Margot, he begins to plot her death.

One year later, Max, played by R. Ward Duffy, returns to England to write a few teleplays. He is a writer of television crime mysteries, and finding Margot married, settles into the backdrop of this marital drama. Max insists, in one of the play’s first scenes, that he could write the perfect murder, though it would be difficult for him to carry it out because in the real world, something always seems to go wrong. The line is prophetic. Tony’s plan to blackmail a former classmate into murdering Margot while Tony’s away at a stag party with Max backfires when Margot accidentally kills her attacker.

Knott might have said something equally prophetic about being able to write the perfect play, but is unable to guarantee a perfect performance because PTC’s production doesn’t always allow Knott’s script to reach its full potential. McTaggart, the play’s principal problem, plays Tony pompously, which is fine, because Tony is British, wealthy and a former tennis player, but he is also supposed to be clever. He claims his wit won him his wife, but McTaggart gives so much attention to achieving the breathy pomposity of a Wimbledon champion that the timing of the entire first act is thrown off. Consequently, Tony’s wit inspires no confidence in the audience and there seems to be no doubt that things will end badly for him. The action seems inadvertently set to suspenseful music, as the audience wonders whether to feel amused or worried until the police arrive and Tony takes a backseat. His one-note performance is really a shame, because he should be the play’s most dynamic character.

Instead, that honor goes to Inspector Hubbard, played well by Roger Forbes. Hubbard mercifully ushers Tony off the stage as suspense finally makes an appearance. The second act relies heavily on dramatic irony, as the players struggle to figure out what the crowd in front of them already knows. Hubbard and Max race against the clock to unlock the mystery of the classmate’s death and save Margot from the death penalty, and the audience finally sees what it was missing in the neutered first act.

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