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Conversation killer

The Arena Dinner Theater presents Dial M for Murder

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


When Chris Colcord signed on to direct the Arena Dinner Theater’s production of Dial M for Murder, he wasn’t really prepared for what he was getting into.

Yes, he was somewhat familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of the story, originally written for the stage by Frederick Knott. But when Colcord watched the movie to reacquaint himself with the story, and then read the script, he was flabbergasted, to put it mildly.

Basically, Dial M for Murder seems to violate some of the fundamental rules in the “how to construct a dramatic narrative” handbook. “It’s all exposition,” Colcord says. He cites a piece of advice that playwright and screenwriter David Mamet once gave to a group of writers: if your scene consists solely of two people in a room talking about a third person, then your scene sucks. “Big chunks of this play are exactly that: two people in a room talking about a third person,” Colcord says. “And the entire play takes place in one setting, too.”

“The script basically repeats itself three times,” adds Larry Wiley, who plays Inspector Hubbard. “Each character tells the story and adds their own details to it.”

In short, the play shouldn’t work… but somehow it does, as the countless remakes and revivals and adaptations for both stage and screen can attest to. It’s tremendously popular, with a poll by the American Film Institute ranking Dial M for Murder at #9 in the mystery genre of best films.

“It’s a big challenge,” Colcord says. “It’s very talky, there’s one setting… I think it has so much name recognition because people think of it as sort of the archtypical British drawing room mystery.” And the danger with those is that they can come across as too staged, too stiff and artificial.

So the Arena Dinner Theater’s production has some fun with it. They don’t take liberties with the story, necessarily, and they certainly don’t change it, but even though it’s a pretty tightly constructed script, Dial M for Murder does allow for a little leeway for its actors to play with the tone. Samantha Teter, who plays Margot, gives an example: “We play the murder scene like one of those bad horror flicks,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to do; I really feel like I’m playing one of those women in those movies who go down into the dark basement while you’re yelling ‘what’s wrong with you?!’ at the screen.”

Colcord offers two authorities that served as sort of inspiration for the Arena’s production. The first is crime writer Raymond Chandler, someone who had no patience for British drawing room mysteries but knew a little something about writing a thriller. “He said that the thing about thrillers is that there are parameters — there’s a murder, a suspect, a cop, and a detective. What you do inside them is the fun stuff,” says Colcord.

The second is film critic Pauline Kael. “She said that the best recipe for popular success in the arts is ‘funny and…’” Colcord says. “So I want to make parts of it genuinely scary, and then parts of it campily funny, because there’s something about it… it kind of begs to have a tiny bit of campy approach to it.”

Colcord thinks that one of the reasons Dial M for Murder has been such an enduring success is the story’s villain, Tony Wendice played by Richard Marchbanks at the Arena. As opposed to a lot of murder mysteries, where the object is who did it and why, in Dial M the audience already knows who did it — they’re just waiting to see if he’ll get away with it. “The perpetrator is pretty charming and charismatic, so you kind of root for him,” Colcord says. “It’s kind of a showy role. You get to be the erudite, charming, sophisticated, yet totally amoral guy, and people almost have a sort of perverse fascination with that.”

“I think that’s definitely part of the appeal,” says Marchbanks. “This sophisticated murder and high society types up to no good.”

Lee Kelso (Max) adds that there’s really not a purely good character in the script. “You want to feel bad for Margot, but she was fooling around with Max, and you can’t really hate Tony because Margot was stepping out on him… so you’re wondering ‘where do I put my loyalties?’”

Arena Dinner Theater presents Dial M for Murder
719 Rockhill
Fridays and Saturdays April 23, 24, 30, May 1, 7, 8
For tickets call (260) 424-5622 or visit arenadinnertheater.org

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.