It is no mystery that Frederick Knott’s “Dial M For Murder” is more psychological thriller than murder mystery.
After all, in the early-1950s, this long-running hit at London’s West End and on Broadway was turned into an Alfred Hitchcock film and the great Hitchcock didn’t dabble in things that were not disturbingly psychological and fundamentally thrilling.
Unlike the plays of Agatha Christie, where a body is discovered and everything about its demise remains a mystery until the end, Knott’s “Dial M For Murder” reveals from the get-go that former tennis star Tony Wendice is planning to kill his wealthy wife.
The playwright even lets us in on Tony’s detailed and devious plans – the blackmail, the extravagant set up, the foolproof alibi, and the meticulous staging of the murder itself. And then we watch it all unfold in the living room of the Wendices’ sophisticated London apartment.
The only mystery is what the good folks at Great Lakes Theater have in store to keep the plot twists camouflaged, make the abrupt turns sufficiently disorienting, and serve up Tony’s pathology in a fresh and interesting way.
As it turns out, what they have in store is not nearly enough.
Director Charlie Fee does a nice job of embracing the modest melodrama that is inherent in psychological thrillers. He knows full well that clever words and their deliberate, highly stylized delivery generates the lion’s share of the play’s requisite dramatic tension.
So, too, do most of the actors.
Jonathan Dyrud, as Tony Wendice, deceives everyone he encounters with his bold confidence, all the while revealing to the audience his smug self-satisfaction and evil intentions with little more than a wayward glance and minor pause. Dougfred Miller, in his depiction of the weak-willed con man-turned-killer Captain Lesgate, creates a wonderfully transparent façade that falls away like tissue paper under Tony’s scrutiny.
Also marvelous is Aled Davies in his portrayal of the deceptively sharp-eyed Inspector Hubbard. And Nick Steen brings immense Eisenhower-era charm to the role of American fiction writer Max Halliday, Margot Wendice's concerned friend and former lover.
Only Robyn Cohen, as Margot, is out of step. The effort required for her to speak loudly, clearly and British leaves her with an emotionless monotone and stiff physicality that undermines all that is potentially accessible, likable and interesting about her character – a character played by Grace Kelly in the film. Since this play rises or falls with the audience caring about the victimized Margot, this production falls early and never quite finds its proper footing.
All this takes place in a single, small location designed by Russell Metheny and lit by Rick Martin, which is an ideal space for a psychological thriller to unfold. The deco chic décor of the London flat offers contrasting black and white walls, drapes and furnishings, and the furniture is at once plush and extremely formal.
The room – like those who occupy it – appears to be in conflict with itself.
As with Hitchcock’s use of 3-D, widescreen CinemaScope and innovative camera placement in the film version of “Dial M For Murder,” Fee and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon try to enhance the play’s drama with technology. Large video images – projected during strategically peppered phone calls throughout the play – show the person on the other end of the conversation.
But by replacing the resonant sound of a far-away voice with the vivid image of that person talking, the drama and sense of claustrophobia created by the set design quickly dissipates.
Worse. During the pivotal moment when Margot is being strangled during a phone call with her husband, she is overshadowed by the large image of Tony listening in. This distraction takes Margot out of the action and the audience along with it.
Perhaps there is a mystery in this psychological thriller after all: Why is Margot so mistreated in this production? Dial “M” for marginalized.
WHAT: “Dial M For Murder”
WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave. in downtown Cleveland
WHEN: Through March 22
TICKETS & INFO: $13 - $70, call 216-241-6000 or visit to greatlakestheater.org.