Dial M for Murder at Alley Theatre: Built on Good Bones But Less Than Airtight

Teresa Zimmmermann and Brandon Hearnsberger in Dial M for Murder at Alley Theatre.
Teresa Zimmmermann and Brandon Hearnsberger in Dial M for Murder at Alley Theatre. Photo by Lynn Lane

Jeffrey Hatcher’s 2022 adaptation of Frederick Knott’s 1952 thriller, Dial M for Murder, playing at the Alley as a foretaste of its Summer Chills, is a tasty treat for murder mystery aficionados.

Taut and clever, with many twists and turns to keep us guessing what will happen next, the most cagey inspiration of Knott’s was to expose the murderer right from the second scene. We know exactly who it is and whom he hires to carry out his nefarious plan to murder his philandering wife. It’s somewhat of a coup de theatre arabesque on Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There, the trusted doctor who narrates the story turns out to be the murderer; here, we know it’s Tony (Brandon Hearnsberger) who blackmails old school acquaintance, wayward Lesgate (Dylan Godwin), to kill Tony’s wealthy wife Margot (Teresa Zimmermann).

This is not a who-done-it, but a how-is-it-going-to-get-done. How will this perfect murder get foiled?

What Hatcher has changed in Knott is to update the sexual triangle. Margot is still having an affair, but now with a woman, Maxine (Geena Quintos), an aspiring mystery writer who’s on the verge of fame with her latest novel, but whose success hinges on how press agent Tony pushes it. Except, Tony knows all about the affair, which is why he wants Margot gone with the wind. He wants her money.

This modern frisson does no harm to the basic story, but it doesn’t add much to any tension already present in the original. It just sits there, saying, see how hip we are. Oh, a lesbian subplot, aren’t we modern. A Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf played gay would be subversive, a lesbian Dial M for Murder is a bit of a yawn.

The play itself is not the problem. The production is.

Director Tatiana Pandiani can’t decide what this drama is supposed to be. Should it be played as a thriller, as was the Hitchcock film adaptation (1954), or should there be lighthearted comedy bits interspersed among the expressionism of the lighting effects and that gigantic red-blinking marquee MURDER that drops in and out of the proscenium like Phantom’s chandelier? The tone is off. Yes, I know, this isn’t Shakespeare or Albee, this is a crowd-pleaser, and we’re in on the game being played. Just sit back and enjoy the tricks. But there are tricks and then there are tricks.

The set, by Marcelo Martínez García, approximates ‘50s Danish modern with metal upholstered chairs, tufted couch, and clunky turntable. But what London flat, or any apartment anywhere, would have mammoth windows at the side of the front door? The actors tie themselves into knots to not look into the living room when entering from the hallway.

The play needs to be airtight, any discrepancies in logic destroy the illusion. And this play is all illusions, we shouldn’t have to worry about such oddities. And for all the opening and closing of the front door – and how much it features in the basic mechanics of the plot – why is it so feeble? The entire wall shakes when someone enters or exits. My junior high school plays had more solid-looking sets. You’re known for your opulence, Alley Theatre, why skimp on a few wood braces and screws? Don’t go cheap on us.

Rodrigo Muñoz’s costumes are not cheap; they are grand: chinchilla wraps and deep V-cut buttress tops right out of Balenciaga; diamond broaches pinned at the waist; silky pantsuits with one flared leg; worsted tweed for the gents. Luxurious and very much in character.

Hearnsberger is a perfect Tony – smug, oily, ophidian. He rages when he doesn’t get his way, and purrs when he does. When Margot is carted off to jail for the murder of Lesgate, Tony practically coos as he perches on the desk, self-satisfied in the extreme.

Zimmermann is more of a problem, but it may not be her fault. Since no one has seen the stage version since 1952, the only comparison we have is Grace Kelly under Hitchcock. Who could possibly match her luminescence? Zimmermann is stuck between frantic and soignee, and neither seems believable.

In the final scene, in which Tony will condemn himself if he unlocks the front door with the key hidden under the stair mat, she flings herself at the door like some Victorian maiden in a D.W. Griffith melodrama. It’s unbecoming and totally out of character at this point. She’s fully aware that Tony has tried to have her murdered, and yet she comes to his defense? It doesn’t make sense.

Quintos goes all butch as Maxine, and it’s never clear why Margot would ever fall for her. She’s all quills. With her Cruella de Vil streak of white in her hair, she plays her mean and spiky. The toughness looks like a charade. Again, it’s the tone.

Godwin is icy good as Lesgate, caught in a web he didn’t spin. He, Hearnsberger and, especially Todd Waite as Scotland Yard Inspector Hubbard, who of course, as all the archetypes before him, knows much more than he lets on, have a ball in these roles, and bat their characters around like cat toys.

Alley’s Dial doesn’t completely gel. Yes, it’s a talky antique of a play, but it has great bones as a mystery thriller, one of the best of its genre.

For a comparison, and maybe why this version falls somewhat flat, see the starker Hitchcock version at MFAH on June 9 at 5 p.m. Originally filmed in 3-D, by the time the play finished its run and the Warner Bros. movie could be released, the fad had passed. The new process was so cumbersome while filmed and projected – and those cardboard glasses never worked properly – the “stereopticon” system was doomed. Dial was released mostly in regular 35mm. Even flat, the film has more depth than the Alley stage.

Dial M for Murder continues through June 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $29-$81.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover