Rep’s ‘Dial M For Murder’ Adds New Twists

Jeffrey Hatcher’s clever new adaptation gets strong acting and powerful second act.

By - Nov 20th, 2023 03:32 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Dial M for Murder in the Quadracci Powerhouse November 14 – December 17, 2023. Pictured Jonathan Wainwrigth, Marcus Truschinski, Amanda Drinkall and Lipica Shah. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Dial M for Murder in the Quadracci Powerhouse November 14 – December 17, 2023. Pictured Jonathan Wainwrigth, Marcus Truschinski, Amanda Drinkall and Lipica Shah. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Author Frederick Knott’s Broadway play in 1952 was quickly grabbed by Alfred Hitchcock for his famous Dial M for Murder movie, which not only used a Hollywood top cast (Grace Kelly, Bob Cummings, Ray Milland) but stuck close enough to the original play to cast the same urbane British actor as Scotland Yard Inspector Hubbard to galvanize the conclusion. (This was a popular character actor whom the Internet has not been kind to since databases mistakenly use a photo of famed Spielberg composer John Williams for the John Williams who won a Tony in this role).

The history lessons are not an aside. Knott’s adapter here has roots dating back to TV’s “Colombo” as well as to several Rep offerings. He is Jeffrey Hatcher, and he has found the key to disguising (quite well) the original plot idea with a sex change, a mystery novelist as a character, a new misdirection and an absorbing second act.

That’s after the Milwaukee Rep spends too much of the first act trying to be oh-so-British in the 1950s before arriving full bore into capturing our attention. That first act leads Amanda Drinkall as the threatened wife and Lipica Shah as her former lover to over-signal the lesbian relation (as if the audience can’t figure it out) and over-trill the Britishisms. Basically they flood us with contrary interplay while trying to manage props.

Perhaps they were seduced into 1950s acting methods by the ultra posh London flat loaded with bric-a-brac so sumptuously created by scenic designer Arnold Bueso (with period-interesting costumes draped by Alexander B. Tecoma).

The real anchor of our interest is actually the villain – the husband – and how easily he toys with his victims. The upper-class chill, that excellent slime and smoothness, belong to veteran American Players Theater resident actor Marcus Truschinski. His proven gifts for comedy and timing are expertly twisted into an evil that makes patrons gasp. The only issue is whether, even in the 1950s, a wife wouldn’t know he is scheming.

Director Laura Braza and the Hatcher adaptation hit their stride in the second act, which engrosses like a psychological thriller should, but I should also point out an acrobatic fight scene choreographed by Christopher Elst in the first act between the wife in a nightgown and the would-be blackmailer-murderer. He is nimbly played by Alex Weisman as an overly assured self-deluder who is not as smart as he thinks.

Braza allowed too much obviousness and focus on the exposition – but it shouldn’t feel like exposition — before settling into trusting the material. The second act also returns Drinkall and Shah with the acting power they should have shown earlier – Shah turning to cat from mouse and Drinkall finding a core for her distrust and outrage.

The second act also brings a needed burst of brusquer pacing and driving motivation from an Inspector Hubbard quite different than the movie but as important to the audience sense of taking sides. Rep veteran Jonathan Wainwright turns Hubbard into a policeman who is pushy and even a bit gruff, a no-nonsense style that awakens the play to the sort of speed and sense of combat required.

The audience wisdom of that old devil Hitchcock rears its head. How will the husband improvise when his plot goes wrong and how can the good guy keep up? That seesawing suspense keeps the production’s mystery going through December 17 on the Milwaukee Rep’s mainstage.

Dial M for Murder Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blogs 

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