‘Dial M for Murder’ is an Old Fashioned with a Twist That Packs a Holiday Punch

Holiday festivities returned to a fever pitch of decked halls and wassailing from Thanksgiving to New Years, as we staved off the deep and pervasive loneliness the pandemic engendered in us all.  But after years of seeking out sugarplum-sweet holiday fare, this season I was craving something with a little more punch. So I swapped out Kris Kringle for Alfred Hitchcock.

On Christmas Eve, I watched Jimmy Stewart’s star turn in Hitchcock’s Rear Window instead of It’s a Wonderful Life. I persuaded my family to see Jeffrey Hatcher’s new adaptation of Dial M For Murder at Northlight Theatre, instead of more traditional wintry performances populated by Rat Kings or ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

Absent literal spirits, Dial M For Murder, is delightfully haunting. Running through January 7, it is adroitly directed by Georgette Verdin, straight off of her equally successful thriller Night Watch at Raven Theatre. Verdin is carving out a niche for herself for lovers of mystery plays – and they are having a moment! 

It’s delicate to describe a play that simultaneously hinges on a series of paradigm-shifting plot revelations and also adapts a beloved classic, but here’s the premise for lucky viewers encountering the story for the first time: Heiress Margot Wendice (played by a superb Lucy Carpetyan) breaks off her affair with mystery novelist Maxine Hadley (the cool and commanding Elizabeth Laidlaw), but she’s being blackmailed. Margot’s husband Tony (perfectly villainous Ryan Hallahan), wise to the affair, isn’t only her blackmailer, he’s planned the perfect murder to complete his revenge. True to the genre, the plot gets convoluted in Act 2, so those who like to beat the detective to solving the mystery should pay attention to the key clues in the first act.

The original play Dial M For Murder by Frederick Knott premiered in 1952 first on the West End and then on Broadway, followed in 1954 by the Hitchcock film that cemented its enduring fame. Hatcher reinvigorates the old chestnut with a number of savvy updates, most notably gender swapping the character of Max Hadley and giving Maxine more investigative prowess. 

By making Margot’s lover a woman, Hatcher creates a more nuanced, sophisticated story for a contemporary audience. Now, Margot is not merely trapped in an unhappy marriage but, in the 1950s, she is a closeted queer woman. This raises the stakes considerably, and made me root even more for Margot and Maxine to prevail. (Though the script downplays the consequences of outing a queer relationship during this period, this was the height of the lavender scare. While laws prohibiting queerness only applied to men, homophobic policy and sentiment was rampant in both the UK and the US. 1954 was the year Alan Turing died from suicide following his state-sanctioned chemical castration for “gross indecency,” or, for calling the police while he was being robbed and having a man in his bed when they arrived.) 

In addition to the gender swapping, Hatcher makes another strategic choice: Tony is a failed novelist who works for Maxine’s publisher. Her success threatens him professionally as well as personally, adding another layer onto the narrative. 

It’s no small task to step into Grace Kelly’s silk stockings (and evening gown, and opera gloves, all sumptuously designed by Raquel Adorno), but Carpetyan triumphs. She makes the role of Margot Wendice her own as she fights propulsively for her life, her autonomy, and her sanity. Her relationship with Laidlaw’s Maxine is compellingly complex: desire, distrust, and loyalty inextricably mingle as the consequences of their affair unfurl. It’s also great fun to watch Hallahan as Tony machinate in real time as his perfect murder plan falls flatter than a B movie at the box office.

Thrillers thrive on atmospherics, and lighting designer Eric Watkins and composer and sound designer Christopher Kriz supply them in spades. Watkins’s use of shadow and silhouettes would make Hitchcock swoon (and left me wanting even more), and Kriz’s psychoacoustics also nod subtly to the master of suspense.

Using Maxine as his mouthpiece, Hatcher takes an opportunity to muse on the enduring popularity of the thriller genre: it elicits dread and suspense; it hinges on a good villain; it privileges the psyche of the murderer over the victim. Dial M For Murder delivers all this with a side of spaghetti and button mushrooms. A truly excellent thriller, it fulfills the rules of the genre while subverting them.

In ancient Rome, the festival around winter solstice was called Saturnalia, and it was a time of social inversion and subversion. Saturnalia inverted the social hierarchy, and a lower-class King of Saturnalia was crowned (presaging the medieval Lord of Misrule at the Feast of Fools). Dial M For Murder offers a kind of modern Saturnalian revelry: pulpy and full of deception, duplicity, and backstabbing. It’s noirish and flirts ever so lightly with camp. These Hitchcockian inversions of the season’s hallmarks offer escapist thrills for the holiday and New Year alike.

Dial M For Murder runs at Northlight Theatre through January 22nd.

Bias Alert: I’ve collaborated with Christopher Kriz, Sarah Slight, Lucy Carapetyan, Nick Sandys, and Jyreika Guest.

CREATIVE
Playwright – Jeffrey Hatcher, (adapted from the original by Frederick Knott) Director –  Georgette Verdin (Associate Artistic Director of Northlight)
Set Design – Mara Zinky
Costume Design – Raquel Adorno
Lighting Design – Eric Watkins
Original Music & Sound Design – Chris Kriz
Stage Manager – Katie Klemme
Production Photography – Michael Brosilow

CAST
Margot – Lucy Carapetyan
Tony – Ryan Hallahan
Maxine – Elizabeth Laidlaw
Inspector Hubbard – Nick Sandys
Lesgate –  Felipe Carrasco

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