Last weekend the Panhandle Players closed out its 2018-18 season with a production of “Dial M for Murder,” a stage version of the “we-know-whodunit but will he get caught?” mystery made famous by Alfred Hitchcock in the film of the same name.
Veteran actor David Stedman, who made an indelible impression as the loathsome villain Sidney Bruhl in last season’s murder-mystery “Deathtrap,” took on directorial duties for the first time with the Panhandle Players, assembling a cast of veteran actors to handle the British drama by Frederick Knott.
Set entirely in the stylish London flat of washed-up tennis pro Tony Wendice (Scott Wilson), and his once-adoring fan trophy wife Margot (Megan Lamb), the play’s strength turns mainly on the head games lobbed back and forth between Tony and Inspector Hubbard (Henry Kozlowsky) and Max Halliday (Bob Inguagiato), an American writer whose former dalliance with Margot leaves behind evidence that Tony uses to help set up the killing of his wife, primarily to hold on to her money as his career begins its fated languish into obscurity.
Tony plots the killing by blackmailing a sinister con man Capt. Lesgate (Royce Rolstad), but as anyone who has ever seen the film’s Grace Kelly flailing to grasp the scissors, it doesn’t end well for Lesgate, and the unraveling by the detective of exactly what happened that fateful night, and who was behind it, makes for an interesting and complicated ball of yarn.
As audiences have come to expect, the set design and construction by Mark and Natalie Parsley was as impeccable and stylish as a Burberry trench coat, complete with the glimpse of a stairwell, added by Renee Valentine, that becomes a key to the plot, pun intended. Panhandle Players’ audiences have come to expect that the stage of the Chapman Auditorium will feature increasingly more vivid and expressive set designs and the Parsleys do not disappoint.
With the help of stage manager Jeana Crozier, and newcomers Jim Morris and Janine Gedman handling sound and lights, Stedman’s direction, his touches of period music, the staging of the parlor room drama, moved along smoothly. His actors each did a fine job of handling the wordy script, each of the five parts either a lead or a substantive supporting role, with the exception of Karen Lumpuy, whose brief appearance as a London bobby closed the show.
Tony and Margot were well-matched, and each handled their tough assignments well. Wilson cast a lanky shadow suitable for a tennis pro, and a suave, stoic demeanor, in contrast to Lamb’s perkiness and graceful movement across the stage, highlighted by the anguished shrieks she utters when she barely escapes getting punctured by a punk with a pair of sewing scissors.
As Max, Inguagiato added bluster and forcefulness, and good-natured obliviousness, to his role of a friend who can’t seem to grasp that his British buddy would be capable of such a misdeed. Rolstad, as the would-be murderer, provided a sharp, well-defined persona to that of the killer, his well-honed sense of timing and nuance on full display.
And of course as the detective, Kozlowsky added another fine chapter to his long list of great characters he has performed for Panhandle Players. As a retired attorney, he had a familiarity with non-committal exclamations, and used that ambiguous tone of verbal agreement to maximum effect in his interactions on stage.
Which leads to the one basic challenge to the production. It is lengthy, with complex exposition and extensive details that lie entirely in what the characters say, and not in anything that can be witnessed on stage. There’s a lot of telling and recounting, sharing and explaining, and it can wear down an audience’s willingness to engage.
Stedman and company did an admirable job bringing “Dial M for Murder” to life. But it does beget the question of how long a local audience will sit, without much action to go on, before it may decide to hang up.
David Adlerstein is a member of the Panhandle Players board of directors.