Dial ‘M’ For Murder: Olney Theatre takes surefooted stab at sinister whodunit

Margot (Nisi Sturgis) and Max (Cameron McNary) share a light moment in Dial ‘M’ For Murder. (Stan Barouh)

Can a theatrical murder mystery still be considered a mystery if halfway through Act I you already know whodunit? Absolutely – as playwright Frederick Knott beautifully demonstrated in his genre-twisting play, Dial ‘M’ For Murder – the current production at Olney Theatre.

Directed by Olney’s Associate Artistic Director, Jason King Jones, Dial ‘M’ For Murder is the story of aging former tennis pro Tony Wendice, who marries for money, becomes the beneficiary of his wife’s will, and hatches a seemingly foolproof plan to do away with the missus. Of course, Tony is too smart to actually do the dirty work, so he enlists the aide of a former college classmate named Captain Lesgate. Tony also maneuvers Margot’s ex-boyfriend – radio mystery writer Max Halliday – into unknowingly providing him (Tony) with an airtight alibi.

Ashley Smith as Tony Wensice in Dial 'M' For Murder. (Stan Barouh
Ashley Smith as Tony Wendice in Dial ‘M’ For Murder. (Stan Barouh)

Once the wheels are set into motion, there is no turning back. Inauspiciously for Tony, however, something goes terribly awry, and it’s left for him to explain to a dogged Scotland Yard detective and a mystery writer with a wild imagination, what did – and did not – happen on the night in question.

Knott received the 1952 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Dial ‘M’ For Murder. The play would go on to become a highly successful vehicle for Alfred Hitchcock, featuring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, Alan Dawson and the inimitable John Williams.

The Olney cast may not have the star power of the aforementioned Hollywood line-up, but they are proficient and never miss a beat.

Nisi Sturgis undertakes the unforgettable role made famous by Grace Kelly: the delicate target of Tony’s plot – Margot Wendice. Sturgis moves about the stage like a princess and conveys an air of vulnerability. Her accent is somewhat amorphous, but her emotions are very real; plus, she looks stunning in several 1950’s-style day and evening dresses.

As the washed-up Wimbledon champ Tony Wendice, actor Ashley Smith is right on the purloined money, blithely reeling in his unwilling confederate, then desperately down-playing his obvious distress as his plan epically unravels.

A sleepy Nisi Sturgis as Margot asks, "Who's There???" (Stan Barouh)
A sleepy Nisi Sturgis as Margot asks, “Who’s There???” (Stan Barouh)

Cameron McNary brings an upbeat note of energy into the Wendice’s urbane existence as the still hopeful ex-boyfriend, Max Halliday. McNary’s Max does a lot of nice little things with his part – particularly with the way his body language around Margot and Tony conveys the essence of a man caught in the unspoken cross-fire. Admittedly, the chemistry between McNary and Sturgis feels a bit forced, but strangely enough, it reminded this reviewer of the curious cinematic pairing of Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings.

Tony’s hapless henchman – Captain Lesgate – is played with duplicitous aplomb by James Konicek, and Olney Theatre veteran Alan Wade rounds out the cast as the razor-sharp Inspector Hubbard.

All of the action in Dial ‘M’ takes place in the living room of the London apartment of Margot and Tony, so the staging must be stylish, yet allow plenty of room for the strange plot twists. Olney accomplishes this feat with a tasteful but simple aqua blue-hued set by Charlie Calvert. Sonya Dowhaluk’s foreboding lighting design, and Roc Lee’s menacing music, ably amplify the spine-tingling mood.

A tip of the taffeta to costume designer Seth M. Gilbert for both the men’s and Margot’s wear.

Dial ‘M’ For Murder is an ominous, old-school play, and Olney’s enjoyable, nostalgic production is well worth seeing.

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Olney Theatre Center’s production of Dial ‘M’ For Murder runs now – May 1. Running time is a bit less than two hours with one fifteen minute intermission. Olney Theatre Center is located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, Maryland. More information may be found by visiting Olney Theatre Center.