Theatre Review | 'Dial M for Murder' 

click to enlarge Danny Gardner and Evan Zes in an updated adaptation of the nostalgic, cozy thriller “Dial M for Murder,” which plays at Geva Theatre Center through Feb. 11.

RON HEERKENS JR. / GOAT FACTORY MEDIA.

Danny Gardner and Evan Zes in an updated adaptation of the nostalgic, cozy thriller “Dial M for Murder,” which plays at Geva Theatre Center through Feb. 11.

A spotlight lights up a single black telephone. With one ring, the audience is transported to a time before smart devices and home security cameras, when a murder could be staged with only a key, a women’s stocking, and a phone call.

These are the first few minutes in an updated adaptation of the nostalgic, cozy thriller “Dial M for Murder,” which Geva Theatre Center is staging in a co-production with Dallas Theater Center through February 11.

The gorgeously atmospheric set (designed by Christopher and Justin Swader) displays the first floor of the house heiress Margot Wendice (Awesta Zarif) shares with her husband, Tony (Danny Gardner), in 1950s London. As detailed as a film set, the living room features a green couch, a study area surrounded by bookcases, and a clear view of the front door and back garden entrance, where killers may enter and victims may flee. The furnishings are sophisticated with muted colors, a home as attractive and cold as the unhappy couple that inhabits it.

“So, how would you murder me?” Margot, in a striking red dress, asks her guest, the up-and-coming suspense novelist Maxine Hadley (Kia Nicole Boyer). The two poised women discuss the methods and motivations of murderers, with a clear flirtatious undertone. It’s soon revealed that the two had an affair, and Margot was blackmailed by an unknown person who stole an incriminating letter that Maxine sent to Margot.

Fans of the movie are forgiven for not remembering the lesbian lover. In the first staging of Frederick Knott’s play, which premiered in London in 1952, Maxine was a man. Knott also penned the screenplay for the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Grace Kelly as Margot.

click to enlarge Left to right, Kia Nicole Boyer, Danny Gardner, and Awesta Zarif in an updated adaptation of the nostalgic, cozy thriller “Dial M for Murder,” which plays at Geva Theatre Center through Feb. 11. - RON HEERKENS JR. / GOAT FACTORY MEDIA.
  • RON HEERKENS JR. / GOAT FACTORY MEDIA.
  • Left to right, Kia Nicole Boyer, Danny Gardner, and Awesta Zarif in an updated adaptation of the nostalgic, cozy thriller “Dial M for Murder,” which plays at Geva Theatre Center through Feb. 11.
Geva’s version, a 2022 adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, attempts to give the women onstage more edge and agency. While the new script isn’t particularly daring or surprising beyond turning Max into Maxine, it’s more palatable for a modern audience that expects more from its women than 1950s tropes.

Early in the play, Tony (a convincingly duplicitous Gardner) fakes a leg injury and interest in buying a car to lure in an old college acquaintance, Lesgate (Zak Reynolds), who he hopes to both blackmail and bribe into killing Margot. Audiences craving a classic whodunnit may be disappointed. Yes, there’s a death in the first act, but the audience watches it happen and has no doubt about the identity of the killer.

During a particularly effective scene, a radio interview with Maxine discussing her suspense novel plays while Lesgate creeps into the house to carry out the carefully laid plan. Murder mysteries are about finding out who committed a murder, Maxine explains. Thrillers are about the suspense of whether somebody will kill — and for what motive.

“Dial M for Murder” is most definitely a thriller, and this production understands how to bring that genre to life. The set and costumes (An-Lin Dauber) convincingly fabricate 1950s London and the wealthy sophistication of the characters, whose biggest threats are the potential murderers amongst them. Design choices in lighting by Emma Deane and sound by Andrew Mark Wilhelm work together to evoke the shifting shadows and jazzy interludes of film noir.

The show is also quite comedic. While this production isn’t a satire, the direction by Rachel Alderman understands that audiences are used to laughing at murder, thanks to movies like “Clue” and “Knives Out.” Zarif as Margot balances her larger-than-life movie star diva approach with just enough self-awareness to infuse lines like “I’m a murderer now” with the right degree of deadpan. Boyer as Maxine grounds the show with a cool, more contemporary presence.

The standout comedic performance is Evan Zes (Inspector Hubbard), who elicits laughter just by appearing in a door frame with his trench coat, derby hat, and thick mustache, emulating the iconic Agatha Christie detective Hercule Poirot. All of the actors handle the script’s rapid fire dialogue with clarity and control, but Zes takes it to another level, racing through lines with an almost cartoonish zeal as he exuberantly picks apart the details of the crime.

His energy infuses the second act with much needed entertainment, as the script builds to its unsurprising conclusion. There’s not a “pull the rug from under your feet” type ending that we sometimes get with Hitchcock. The thrills come less from the plot and more from the tense atmosphere and the nostalgic noir style. The production overall feels safe — though isn’t that what draws audiences to cozy thrillers? Nobody actually wants to be murdered.

"Dial M for Murder" runs through Feb. 11 at Geva Theatre Center. For more info and tickets: gevatheatre.org.

Katherine Varga is a freelance contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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