The Yellowed Pages

Phoenix Theatre's current production, Dial M for Murder, pits a killer against a mystery writer/police inspector team, but the plot is no puzzler. My mystery-writer friend and seatmate Karol had the whole plot figured out in the first act when the leading lady (Heidi Ewart) sat down to work on her husband's scrapbook with a pair of big, shiny scissors. After that, Ewart--whose performance is the best thing about the show--is gone from the stage for much of the rest of the evening, leaving a noticeable vacuum onstage.

Frederick Knott's tired old play about a Britisher who pays a hit man to kill his wife enjoyed long runs in the West End and on Broadway in 1952. It's since been revived incessantly by small theatre companies the world over. Dial M for Murder is best known for its excellent American film treatment by Alfred Hitchcock, who gloomed up the original and gave Grace Kelly one of her more memorable roles.

Director Michael D. Mitchell has restored the play's original spirit. Approaching Knott's script as a conventional melodrama, he emphasizes its slight, fey humor and adds some unfortunate incidental music. The production falters not for lack of talent (aside from Bruce Laks' wobbly performance as the mystery writer, the acting is quite good), but for the lopsided direction of its principal players. Mitchell seems to have instructed most of his cast to camp it up, while asking his male lead to play it straight.

Ewart is splendid as the intended murder victim. Margot isn't much of a part, but Ewart plays her for all she's worth--all rounded vowels and raised eyebrows. Her portrayal of this spoiled rich woman calls to mind drawing-room comedies of the Thirties, where Ruth Chatterton wore a lorgnette and punctuated every sentence with the word "dahling."

Ewart's performance is met by a suitably droll turn by Gerald Burgess as the chief inspector. Burgess played essentially the same role last season in PT's The Mousetrap, where he appeared as the British inspector Major Metcalf. In fact, this fine actor has made a second career of playing giddy supporting characters who show up in the second act. I look forward to his return to playing leads.

Leading man Kim Bennett is also quite good, though his somber portrayal of the murderous husband (trust me, I'm not giving anything away) belongs in another play altogether. Alongside Burgess' and Ewart's over-the-top acting--not to mention an expertly oily performance by John Sankovich as the murderer--Bennett's performance seems off-kilter and overl dramatic. His final moment, however, produces some unintentional humor: The scene finds Bennett frozen in a doorway, reaching out to his wife in a goofy homage to the closing shot from the motion picture The Women, featuring Norma Shearing.

The old film references are fueled by Gro Johre's handsome set, which suggests a dim, film noir sound stage. Rebecca Y. Powell's neutral costumes also call to mind old black-and-white films, even if the cut of the men's jackets includes styles favored in the mid-Fifties and the early Sixties (the play is presumably set in 1952).

Ultimately, the only revelations here are that newcomer Bennett is a pretty good actor, and that, with some effort, the word "handbag" can be pronounced with 11 syllables. Despite its schizophrenic direction, this creaky old melodrama makes for a pleasant evening's entertainment, but that doesn't obscure that there's no reason whatsoever--other than a hope for plentiful ticket sales--that a professional theatre should be presenting it.

The folks at Phoenix Theatre have told me that their audiences asked for this show by name. I wonder: If audiences ask for an entire season of Neil Simon, will they get that, too? While theatre critics hardly count as audience members, I'd like to ask Phoenix Theatre for something myself: Please, show us what you can do with something new and relevant.

--Robrt L. Pela

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela