Tony Wendice, played by Jonathan Dyrud, rode a greasy gust of high airs and low cunning through the apartment door. His wife, Margot (Robyn Cohen), and her erstwhile lover, American crime fiction writer Max Halliday (Nick Steen) had been talking about Tony's turnaround—how he'd gotten a job and begun to be more caring toward his wife—but Tony's entry dispelled any doubt that he was up to no good in the opening minutes of Idaho Shakespeare Festival's gripping production of Dial "M'" for Murder.
The setup: Tony married Margot for her money, and after discovering her affair with Max, he kicked into motion plans to dispose of his wife, strong-arming a former Cambridge University mate, Captain Lesgate (Dougfred Miller), to do the deed for him. Tony believes he has concocted the perfect crime—one that rids him of his wife, provides him with an alibi and sets him up, money-wise, for life. But as Max points out, no crime goes exactly according to plan. Dial "M" for Murder is a mystery of plot twists and competing narratives.
The play was written by Frederick Knott and first performed on stage in 1952. He later adapted the work for an Alfred Hitchcock-directed film version that hit theaters in 1954. It has since been re-adapted for television and remains a standout in the thriller genre for its taut dialogue, expert pacing and vivid characters. ISF's production, directed by Artistic Director Charles Fee, will have audiences chewing their knuckles with anticipation one moment and chuckling at some dark irony the next. It's a must-see.
Casting decisions made ISF's production shine. Dyrud's Tony has volume-less, pomaded red hair and a barely visible red mustache that gives him a chronically chapped, charmless appearance. He brilliantly walks the narrow line between sociopathy and outright sleaze. Cohen's Margot is a fatally loyal and trusting British wife, and Steen's Max is a fatally honest, straightforward and slightly dull guest who has overstayed his welcome. Aled Davies plays a grandfatherly Inspector Hubbard who is tasked with untangling a web of lies and red herrings to solve the labyrinthine case. His even-handedness and genuine interest in his work make him the glue that holds the play together in the second act.
It's a no-frill stage for a thriller, set entirely in Tony and Margot's London flat, but there are distractions enough in the plot. However, set designer Russell Metheny and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon added one distraction too many by including a video element that can draw the eye away from the action on stage and toward the action on the screen. Still, the set itself is compact and period specific. Photos of Tony's college and tennis days hang over the fireplace and a row of liquor bottles peeking up from behind the living room couch practically has a speaking role.
At the end of the May 29 opening performance, the audience rose to its feet, delivering a richly deserved standing ovation. Dial "M" for Murder switches moods easily, and is by turns dark and darkly funny—ISF's production is sure to keep audiences on its toes.