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.

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

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