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‘Dial M for Murder’ is a smash at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope

Graeme Malcom as Inspector Hubbard and Olivia Gilliatt as Margot Wendice (Photo: Joan Marcus)

By John Dwyer

There are mysteries and there are mysteries.

One of the most famous is “Mousetrap,” a play that was a true whodunit. Mysteries of that ilk are a normal puzzle. It will be both the inspector and the audience who will figure out who the murderer is. A puzzle: Does this piece fit here? Who did it? What was the motive?

We are given something different with “Dial M for Murder” by Frederick Knott, who also wrote “Wait Until Dark.” We know who did it. The question becomes “Can they get away with it?” This excellently cast show has been superbly mounted by director by Mike Donahue.

Most people will be familiar with the Hitchcock movie from 1954 with Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Bob Cummings. The plot is that the heroine is not such a good girl. She had an affair, and her husband finds out about it. He cannot handle it. He decides to kill her. Things go wrong. Someone else dies. He frames her for that murder.

JD Taylor as Tony Wendice (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I loved Hitchcock, but had problems with that movie and could have had problems with this show but for something Mike Donahue did that gave it a different twist. Nothing changed in the script. Something changed in our perception. Margot had an affair with a black man. Race matters. This is just not color blind casting. It makes the plot, sadly, more believable without changing a word.

I could never understand why Margot was so smitten with the urbane, but verging on effete Ray Milland. But she was consistent in the movie as far as type. She fell for the slightly fey but heterosexual Robert Cummings. If Milland had carried the sex appeal of Cary Grant, who played a similar role as a playboy in “Suspicion,” it would have worked. The boyish sex appeal and controlling nature that needs to be seen is expertly executed by the handsome and really superb actor, JD Taylor, who is now in the role of Tony Wendice. I am much more convinced that this man would be someone who wealthy socialite Margot Wendice would fall for, and then find it hard to extricate herself from.

The time is 1952. Dial phones are being used and are an intrinsic part of this plot. This is well before the civil rights act and integration in our country. Tony’s jealousy and paranoia now has a racial and, in his head, a moral/class reason for murder to complicate things. This in no means is “Birth of a Nation.” There is no dialogue indicating the violating of white women in it. But the time was 1952 and that would have been thought of in the movie, if Hitchcock were savvy enough to have cast it that way.

The handsome, lanky and equally urbane Clifton Duncan is the black man in question, Max Halliday, TV crime series screenwriter, who had the affair with Margot. Duncan is perfection. He certainly gives Margot a better reason for an affair than, let’s say, a Bob Cummings. His profession has been updated a bit from American crime fiction writer to television screenwriter.

Olivia Gilliatt as Margot Wendice and Clifton Duncan as Max Halliday (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Margot Wendice is played by another accomplished actress, Olivia Gilliant, who convincingly conveys a confused love of her husband, even as he conspires against her. Grant Harrison as Captain Lesgate, a.k.a Charles Swann, could be played just as a low-life. Harrison is able to wring sympathy for the character out of the audience, who sees that he gets manipulated as well by the cuckolded Tony Wendice.

Graeme Malcolm as Inspector Hubbard is paternally and serenely calm as he attempts to solve the issue of homicide at the Wendice flat. A veteran Broadway actor, Malcolm handles a scene of a play with the same ease and expertise as Hubbard does a crime scene. Mystery solved.

Kudos to Donahue. He has really thought this out well. The casting is perfection. It would be hard for him to have assembled a better ensemble. And he has elicited performances or given space to some actors that are providing some of the best acting that has been seen on this stage in years. The production is indebted to a great set by Anna Louizos, costumes by Tristan Raines. Also, recognition to the realistic fight scene choreographed by J. Allen Suddeth. The show ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Grant Harrison as Captain Lesgate and Olivia Gilliatt as Margot Wendice (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Hitchcock concentrated on the mechanics of the plot. He was drawn to the MacGuffin of the latchkey — it was a game. The movie’s ending had someone making a cocktail, as if to say, “The game is over. Point. Match. Care for a drink?” Donahue excised that ending to the betterment of the script.

The movie was fashioned like a game of mousetrap. Donahue’s production is a study of people and their motivations. His play ends without a smarmy “Wasn’t I clever?” moment. He has let flawed people play out their moves, and left us knowing that actions have consequences. And life is not a “trivial pursuit.”

Dial “T” for tickets. Put it on speed dial.

The production runs through June 15 at Bucks County Playhouse, and tickets are available online.

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