ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Not long ago, Albuquerque Little Theatre produced Frederick Knott’s “Wait Until Dark,” a terrifying suspense thriller that put me in mind of Alfred Hitchcock. I didn’t know at the time that Knott also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder,” an adaptation of his own crime thriller.
Knott only wrote three plays, but he had so much success with “Dial M” and “Wait Until Dark” that he was financially set for the remainder of his long life. ALT showed that “Wait Until Dark” still holds the stage and are now producing his other big hit, which is not as menacing and suspenseful as “Wait Until Dark,” but compensates with other attributes.
“Dial M for Murder” invites the audience into the living room of charming sociopath Tony Wendice, a retired tennis pro with dwindling resources. His wife Margot, however, has a lot of money, and Wendice concocts the perfect crime, or so he thinks. For as the erstwhile boyfriend of Margot (Max Halliday, a television crime writer who still hankers after Margot) says: “there is no such thing as a perfect crime.” It might be perfect theoretically, but in execution things occur that are not accounted for in the plan. That’s precisely what we see, and the fun is watching Tony attempt to wiggle out of apprehension by the police.
Tony plans to murder his wife and inherit her money, and as he recounts the details of the planned crime to the initially reluctant accomplice Captain Lesgate (blackmailed into executing the murder for Wendice while he is away for the night, assuring him a perfect alibi) we then wonder how this will all play out.
The production is directed by Nancy Sellin, who recently demonstrated in “The Lion in Winter” that she is first-rate in her work with actors. The talented cast is led by David Bello as Wendice, who plays the role with insouciant confidence, ruthless intelligence and smarmy indignation when accused of fashioning such a “preposterous” crime. Ronda Lewis and Vince Ascoli are good as wife Margot and hapless lover Max. Tim Riley effectively evinces the obtuse conscience that makes Lesgate equally culpable. And Mario Cabrera is wonderful as the Scotland Yard sleuth, Inspector Hubbard.
Set designer Glenn Pepe, whose set for “Wait Until Dark” so enhanced that wonderful production, is at the top of his game here, too, designing a period perfect 1950s apartment living room. Joe Moncada’s costumes are exquisite, especially Margot’s brilliant red dress, perfectly framed by Pepe’s set, mostly a range of yellows.
The play is set in just the one room, and time lapses are signaled by blackouts, interludes enriched by jazz masters Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck and others.
“Dial M for Murder” is not a comedy, but there are funny moments that may or may not be intended, such as Wendice telling his wife to go back to bed immediately after someone has just tried to strangle her. Surely the police won’t need to talk to her. This may not be a great play, but when handled with skill, as it is here, it makes for a pretty entertaining night of theater.
“Dial M for Murder” is playing through Feb. 10 at Albuquerque Little Theatre in Old Town. Go to albuquerquelittletheatre.org or call 242-4750 for reservations.