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Center Stage

Hitchcock’s dark farce is funny but flat

4/9/2014

Even before Alfred Hitchcock started to toy with it, “Dial M for Murder” was a dark farce. Frederick Knott, the playwright, whipped up some diabolical conniving, as Tony Wendice arranged a hit on his rich wife Margot. In the early ’50s, Broadway audiences couldn’t get enough. Then Hitchcock’s movie (Grace Kelly’s first great role) ended with wicked British cool. Tony, caught at last, pours Scotch for everyone — including his still-breathing wife — even as the detective who nabbed him picks up the phone: Dial B for Busted.

“Dial M for Murder,” produced by Actors, Inc.: Ames Community Theater, runs through Sunday, April 13, showing at 7:30 p.m., except on Sunday (2 p.m.).

“Dial M for Murder,” produced by Actors, Inc.: Ames Community Theater, runs through Sunday, April 13, showing at 7:30 p.m., except on Sunday (2 p.m.).

The balance between chills and chuckles is tough to strike. Knott himself went for pure fright in his other hit, “Wait Until Dark.” The highest compliment I can pay the production in Ames, then, is that it maintains the balance. It delivers both the thrill of charismatic evil and the satisfaction of its comeuppance. Theatergoers erupted with unexpected laughter as the husband spun his web of lies.

The set offers more good news, contributing to the sense of entrapment. Margot’s and Tony’s London flat suggests a noose closing in — all dark stripes and heavy décor. When the doors open, they reveal walls and railings.

Less successful, though, was the level of performance. Only Stephanie Bauder McKay, as Margot, created genuine empathy. As she rattled around this well-made contraption — doomed, then freed, then ensnared again — Mackay might’ve been the original woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She was off-balance from the opening, as she tottered away from an ex-lover, Max, who kept a stiff-backed distance. Her Tony must never know about the affair. A couple of scenes later, though, her spine turned to limp spaghetti, as she huddles against Max’s chest. A ring of the phone sent her flinching and gasping.

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Of course, Tony’s a sociopath, so we can’t expect empathy. Still, David Detlefs took too long warming to the role’s alternation of charm and menace. His heft and big head should’ve seemed more dangerous. As for his voice, during the crucial early scene, when Tony blackmails a lesser crook, Detlefs’ recitation of the other man’s crimes fell into singsong. The accusations didn’t sting.

Frederic Wiegel, as Max, suffered the same early stiffness, and later on, Inspector Hubbard, played by James Werbel, lacked the necessary texture. He outwitted a criminal mastermind, but he came out flat. To be fair, the flatness was in part due to the company’s decision to do without English dialects. But then again, Hitchcock’s crew did the same. If a person’s speaking with a forked tongue, can’t he have a Midwestern accent?

Overheard in the Lobby: “Les Miz” continues to do great business at the Playhouse, and more new shows have been added. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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