There's nothing quite like a good murder mystery (especially a British one — I admit I may be biased on this point). That's just what's on offer with the latest production of Frederick Knott's Dial 'M' for Murder at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.
If you're not familiar with the story from the Hitchcock movie, here's a quick synopsis (how the characters navigate the story is the fun part — the actual ending is never in any real doubt). Tony Wendice (Montel VanderHorck III) was a successful international tennis player in the days before million-dollar prizes. In order to secure his post-playing future, he has married wealthy socialite Margot (Megan Hughes). However, when he retires, he discovers that Margot has been having an affair with American crime writer Max Halliday (Evan Needham), thus endangering his neatly planned future life. This being a murder mystery, Tony decides Margot must be disposed of so he can inherit her wealth and his life can simply continue on its predetermined path of comfort and ease.
Tennis players are, however, not usually well equipped to be murderers so Tony searches out an old college acquaintance, Charles Swann (Scott "Q" Marcus). Swann (now known as Captain Lesgate) has led a somewhat murky existence since those carefree Cambridge University days, as Tony discovers, which has left him vulnerable to blackmail by those with even fewer morals than he. A murder-by-proxy plot is duly hatched, which proceeds according to plan until it doesn't and Lesgate ends up dead instead.
Ever one with an eye for opportunity, Tony immediately sets about framing his wife for the unexpected death. The local police, in the form of Inspector Hubbard (Jim Buschman) and Constable Thompson (Michael "Pink" Enis) buy his story until (spoiler!) they don't. At the same time, Margot's erstwhile lover Max has been using his crime-fiction talents to construct alternate theories of the case in a desperate attempt to prevent her from being executed.
VanderHorck overlays Tony Wendice's convincingly charming exterior with just the right amount of sliminess — you just know he has one of those slightly damp and unpleasant handshakes that makes you want to count your fingers after. Hughes is pitch-perfect as an upper-class lady of leisure who has tired of her husband's superficial charms and is searching for more meaning in her life than an endless parade of cocktail parties and society balls. Both actors have clearly worked hard on their English accents and more than pass muster with this U.K. native.
Needham as Max Halliday fortunately does not have to journey down the rocky road to a convincing English accent, giving him all the more time to invest in a solid portrayal of the fiction-writer-turned-amateur-sleuth. One gets the feeling he would be right at home with Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove. Marcus' accent is less successful, however, and at times he seems a little too hesitant and self-effacing to have carried out the crimes Captain Lesgate is alleged to have committed; hopefully his confidence in his alter ego's nefarious past will grow as the run continues.
Buschman settles on a neutral mid-Atlantic accent for his impressive Columbo-esque portrayal of Inspector Hubbard — no shame in that. In fact, it works to his advantage in his carefully nuanced construction of the alternate theory of the case. Ennis' role is more off-stage than on but he clearly revels in playing a key part in the happy ending.
Andrea Zvaleko is definitely finding her director's feet with this, her third directing venture in Humboldt. She keeps the action moving along at a cracking pace and pulls audience right along with her. There's a lot to juggle in a murder mystery and she succeeds admirably in keeping everyone on point, a task in which she is ably supported by stage manager Kira Gallaway.
Brian Butler's scenic design appropriately reflects upper-class life in 1950s England, and Calder Johnson's lighting design guides us well through the overt and covert actions on stage. Johnson's sound design is less successful, at least as it applies to the on-stage telephone conversations; the people at the other end of the line sound as if they are also on stage, rather than at the other end of a crackly analog phone line. Sarah Traywick's costume designs are mostly on point, especially Margot's outfits, but Captain Lesgate's suit is clearly several sizes too large and Constable Thompson needs a bobby's helmet rather than a patrolman's flat cap.
But these are minor niggles in a production that otherwise faithfully captures the world of the classic murder mystery. Dial 'M' for Murder is definitely one for your theatrical calendar this month.
North Coast Repertory Theatre's Dial 'M' for Murder plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 7. Visit www.ncrt.net or call 442-6278.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's moving drama about AI, memory and aging, Marjorie Prime, runs through Sept. 23. Visit www.redwoodcurtain.com or call 443-7688.
Steve Martin's philosophical comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile has the painter chatting with Albert Einstein in 1904 Paris. Catch it at the Kimtu Cookhouse through Sept. 22. Call (530) 629-3564.
It's alive at Ferndale Repertory Theatre — Young Frankenstein, that is. The musical based on the Mel Brooks horror comedy (for ages 14 and up) runs Sept. 27 through Oct. 28. Visit www.ferndalerep.org or call 786-5483.