Arts & Culture

Murder, blackmail, deceit: An arresting evening brimming with discovery, punishment and retribution

Jack Lafferty, Amber Bonasso, and Ethan Saks star in “Dial M for Murder.”
Jack Lafferty, Amber Bonasso, and Ethan Saks star in “Dial M for Murder.” Jordan Sturm Photography

“Dial M for Murder,” which opened Friday night at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, is a mystery thriller in its finest form. The powerful play, written by Frederick Knott in 1952, is simply top-notch, compelling and a serious must-see.

To say that the original production of “Dial M for Murder” in 1952 was an enormous success would be a triumph of understatement. The play was enthusiastically received all of those years ago and has continued in production around the world for more than six decades.

You may be surprised when I tell you, in spite of what you might have gathered, that “Dial M for Murder” is not a “who done it” at all. Knott, in the course of this winning play, involves us all in the riveting plot line every step of the way. We absolutely know “who done it” and why.

The absorbing play is really a kind of psychological thriller, a cat-and-mouse game, which we in the audience are immediately invited to observe. Further, he includes us in an engaging kind of character study, as we join with him on his inside track as we watch every single plot change, zigzag or reverse turn in the course of the intricate play action. Through the course of the evening, we all loved taking in the activity on the stage and filing away every detail he put in place as we watched the astonishing story line unfold.

“Dial M for Murder” is compelling, involving and completely entertaining. This production is absolutely not a dust-off of a storyline dealing with issues that surfaced in an earlier time. The powerful play is rife with issues of the 1950s, and – guess what – matters of greed, guile, deceit, duplicity, pretense and treachery were on the mark then and continue at the top of the list of relevant and concerning distractions of today.

The remarkable and accomplished cast – Amber Bonasso as Margot Wendice, Sam Cordes as Captain Lesgate, Paul Kiernan as Inspector Hubbard, Jack Lafferty as Max Halliady and Ethan Saks as Tony Wendice – were just outstanding.

A seasoned director of 27 productions at the Arts Center, Russell Treyz has assembled this distinguished ensemble cast and has seen to every detail of this throat-gripping production.

In moments, as each actor takes the stage, we are totally consumed with the energy, the solicitous swaggering and arrogance, along with the soul-crushing evil that is almost palpable of Tony; the gracious, charming naivete, even vulnerability, of Margot; the callow, unscrupulous, sleaziness of Captain Lesgate; the youthful, brilliant, loving, support of Max; and the bumbling wiliness of the completely delightful Inspector Hubbard.

As we meet Tony Wendice, a professional tennis player of no particular means or future, who is married to the very lovely, very rich Margot, we find that he has given up his career, taken a job and was working at becoming a “stay nearby” husband in support of his wealthy wife. We find shortly, too, that not only does he resent the life he is now living, he realizes that he is finally the sole heir to her fortune, and further, that his wife has been involved in an affair. When Max Halladay arrives — a handsome, brilliant crime writer and an American who, by the way, clearly was complicit in the romantic past with Margot – the plot thickens. Drinks are shared – backgrounds, too – and it becomes apparent that Max and Margot have recently shared a bit more than their past, and that they may be intent on a new beginning.

Here is where all of the detail begins to emerge, and the plot begins to thicken. There is a whirlwind of important detail and background, and we in the audience want to know more. By the way, all is set against the absolutely perfect 1950s upperclass London apartment that Tony and Margot share.

I offer a shortened checklist of elements you’ll want to note. First, of course, the telephone, but then pay close attention to the introduction of lost letters, keys, photos on the mantel piece, a sewing basket and scissors, a little white handbag, an attache case, a pair of gloves and stockings – and the astonishing list goes on. It is this incredible detail that keeps us completely absorbed, deeply involved and fully entertained.

So, when the energetic Tony, who constantly moves between two distinct characters – dedicated husband and gracious friend – to soulless husband with murder in mind, explains that he will not be able to join Margot and Max at a very special night out, we begin to sense that his plan is fully in place. You simply can’t take your eyes off the frenetic Tony. He just never stops. You will be intrigued with all of his organizing, then repulsed at the murder he has orchestrated, and by his co-conspirator, Captain Lesgate and the complicated way they plan to carry it off.

Here is where I share with you that a murder takes place – there is an obligatory body, but we, in the audience could not have been more shocked and surprise by the way it came about and what happened next.

Playwright Knott’s gift to his audiences is the way in which he engages us through the words and actions he assigns his remarkable cast: a quizzical look, a fleeting glance, an unanticipated response to new circumstances, just revealed, sometimes a few words overheard. We, in the audience on Friday night, responded to the opportunity to share in the unraveling of the intricate storyline and the character studies he reveals through the course of the powerful script, the details of the murder, and its surprising and satisfying outcome.

Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at nancykwellard@gmail.com.

If you go

  • What: “Dial M for Murder”
  • When: Through Feb. 25
  • Where: Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, 14 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island
  • Info and tickets: 843-842-ARTS
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