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THEATER REVIEW

Perhaps not the perfect crime

A stylish staging can't entirely erase the static in the talky thriller `Dial M for Murder.'

October 31, 2006|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

As boulevard thrillers go, "Dial M for Murder" is nothing if not resilient. Since it premiered in 1952 as a BBC television play, Frederick Knott's study of the perfect crime gone awry has become a regional staple. And, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film version starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and 3-D, the clockwork logic of this war horse is readily available for study.

Appropriately, the revival at Hermosa Beach Playhouse makes copious use of Bernard Herrmann movie scores, and designer Christopher Beyries' excellent set suggests countless vintage bump-in-the-night drawing rooms. There are other old-school assets in director Ted Escobar's sturdy reading, starting with Michael Laurie, who plays lethal Tony Wendice with a dry ease that would not shame Paxton Whitehead.

Ex-tennis pro Tony only seems the charmer seen with Margot (Kimberly Patterson), his wealthy wife, and Max (Shaun Madden), the American television writer with whom she has ended a dalliance. Tony's murderous aims emerge during his interview with Captain Lesgate (John Thomas), a shady former school chum blackmailed into acting as hit man.

Tony's elaborate plan, which he lays out to Lesgate in painstaking terms rather talky for modern tastes, backfires in the play's most celebrated scene, when Margot turns the tables on her assailant. Smartly lighted by Michael Tushaus, this scuffle supplies "Dial M" with its main frissons.

After machinations by thinking-on-his-feet Tony leave Margot facing the gallows, Act 2 concerns the apparent success of the scheme. However, the case is far from closed, and Scotland Yard's own Inspector Hubbard (Barry Phillips) is much less cut-and-dried than appearances suggest.

These cat-and-mice maneuvers, well costumed by Karen Cornejo, are the sum of "Dial M for Murder." Laurie's suavity as Tony dovetails nicely with Patterson, whose clipped fragility recalls Dorothy McGuire. If Madden is collegiate as Max, he certainly looks the romantic threat, and Thomas and Phillips are aptly oily and brittle, respectively, in their functional roles.

Whether their respectable efforts justify a revival in a venue that requires microphones for audibility is a shakier question. Even in the '50s, "Dial M" was more a cerebral thriller than a visceral one. Nor is Tony, his motives surface yet his inner workings obscure, exactly a timeless baddie to set alongside, say, Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. Fans of the property may ignore its dated contours, although the truly nostalgic might consider renting the DVD.

*

'Dial M for Murder'

Where: Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $35 to $45

Contact: (310) 372-4477 or www.civiclightopera.com

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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