Dial 'M' for Murder

This Fifties suspenser shows its age in UT's production, which never quite generates all the suspense it could

Is the line dead, or is the caller?: Juliet Robb and Shanon Weaver in <i>Dial M for Murder</i>
Is the line dead, or is the caller?: Juliet Robb and Shanon Weaver in Dial "M" for Murder (Courtesy of Lawrence Peart)

Dial 'M' for Murder

B. Iden Payne Theatre, 300 E. 23rd, UT campus, 512/477-6060
Through Oct. 13
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

At the outset, it's a simple story. A young, frustrated wife in London once embarked on a brief affair but ended it. Her husband has discovered her transgression and hires a hit man. The wrong person dies, and her husband frames her for the murder. It's up to her former lover and a Scottish detective to solve the mystery and save her from the gallows.

Seeing the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance's production of Dial "M" for Murder is more successful if you pretend you've also gone back in time 60 years for the occasion. It's not a bad play or a bad production. It's just a play that's firmly rooted in its early Fifties era, from the helpless heroine without much spine to the extraordinary amount of talking that goes on to deliver a few simple plot points. So, strong female lead? Not so much. Tight, focused dialogue? Not really: The script from Frederick Knott would be lucky to stretch to 90 minutes if it were written to premiere on today's stages. But it's not for nothing that Alfred Hitchcock filmed the 1954 adaptation. An authentic film noir atmosphere, an intriguing psychological mystery, and a little of that moneyed English parlor sophistication will be enough for many audiences to enjoy themselves.

As the heroine Margot Wendice, Juliet Robb performs well, as does Ryan Belock as her former lover, the American screenwriter Max Halliday. The cast is aided by a solid design, in particular the costume design from Kelly Ruiz. (Seriously, where can a girl get a dress like that number in the first scene?) Opening night saw some flubs with the technical side of the production, with doorbells that did not sound and phones that rang at the wrong line, but time often heals a run's early glitches.

Yet the direction from department chair Brant Pope never quite rises to the challenges posed by a play like this one. A talky, talky script like Dial "M" isn't necessarily a bad thing, or nobody would ever bother to see a Shakespeare or a Chekhov. But it does mean things need to move quickly, and things like long, repeated crosses through empty stage space hurt what momentum is there. There are strong moments, like the appearance of the would-be murderer (Sean Moran), backlit at the door on the stormy night of his attempted crime, but such moments aren't connected enough to imbue the production with real suspense. As a result, on opening night several moments of revelation or discovery fell victim to an awkward round of chuckles.

A creepy, psychological thriller such as Dial "M" needs a bold, unabashed embrace of the intrigue, for all its dated elements. The production here gives the script more of an affectionate hug.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Austin theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
When is violence in theatre too much?

Shanon Weaver, Dec. 9, 2016

Making Room to Play
Making Room to Play
Create Space Austin kicks off the drive to secure more performing venues in the city

Elizabeth Cobbe, April 15, 2016

More Arts Reviews
Zach Theatre's <i>Hedwig and the Angry Inch</i>
Zach Theatre's Hedwig and the Angry Inch
This revival gives the trans singer's identity crisis a punk lullaby with rockin' style

Robert Faires, Feb. 22, 2019

Mary Moody Northen Theatre's <i>The Three Musketeers</i>
Mary Moody Northen Theatre's The Three Musketeers
A contemporary script, powerful acting, and fantastic swordplay combine to create a heroic journey that's fun and easy to get lost in

Trey Gutierrez, Feb. 22, 2019

More by Elizabeth Cobbe
Southwest Theatre Productions' <i>Sweat</i>
Southwest Theatre Productions' Sweat
This production brings home the plight of the American blue-collar worker with sympathy

Jan. 25, 2019

Street Corner Arts' <i>We Are Proud to Present ...</i>
Street Corner Arts' We Are Proud to Present ...
This production is more than exceptional theatre; it asks thought-provoking questions about authority, perspective, and intention

Dec. 7, 2018


Dial 'M' for Murder, Austin theatre, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Brant Pope, Juliet Robb, Ryan Belock, Sean Moran, Kelly Ruiz

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle