“Dial ‘M’ for Murder”/ Ghent Playhouse/ Directed by Flo Hayle
“DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER” is a plot-intensive, 1950s piece of crime fiction that has a difficult time breathing in 2011. It cannot survive well without a great deal of actor-supplied humanity. Fortunately the production at Ghent Playhouse has three actors who almost get the job done despite the script: Neal Berntson as the soulless murderer, John Trainor as the police inspector with unexpected smarts, and Daniel Region as the suave, money-hungry husband out to murder his wealthy wife.
Though Bernston (Captain Lesgate) gets killed off fairly early in the play, while sentient — watching a web of blackmail slowly entrap him — he makes his long silences eloquent. The lines are icy-clean, and his morality-free thought processes are better than lines.
The amazing John Trainor (Inspector Hubbard) always creates a totally believable person on stage — no matter the script’s strengths or weaknesses. He does it again in “Dial ‘M’.”
The wicked leading-man-performance of Dan Region (Tony) exhibits the ability and technique required to save a dated play. It is a pleasure to watch him rescue a long monologue of backstory (necessary to the audience but irrelevant to his onstage listener) with a restless use of the space, with the handling of objects, and with a multitude of small human behaviors that encourage the underlying person to come through. Among the more obvious details is a fake limp that evaporates as his murderous motive emerges and an unctuous smile that accompanies the plan.
As the play progresses, Tony’s veneer of confidence thins, until by Act III, body language, as well as hair and clothing, have lost their crispness, and we (in the audience) know he is undone. It is a nice, slow transformation.
Turning these three actors loose and providing doable staging is the good work of director Flo Hayle. However, my theater companion complained about the long scene changes (it is, after all, a one-set play), and both of us found ourselves firmly seated in the audience rather than absorbed into the drama. When in doubt, blame the director. Or is it the script?
Jill Wanderman, as the target of murder, is in and out of believability and not quite individual enough to rescue the playwright.
Paul Murphy is uncomfortable in his first scene but comes alive later when the character is allowed some enhanced motive and stronger action. (Murphy is more likely to dig into wacky or highly emotional characters.)
The play’s producer, Paul Leyden, makes the trains run on time, paints sets, answers the phone, and performs his tidy, walk-on character with appropriate modesty and vigor.
A large design crew, including Robert Bisson, Bill Camp and Bill Visscher, has created an attractive, functional set. Its moss-green walls and frosted moldings look rather contemporary but not disturbingly so.
Lisa Baumbach’s costumes live happily in the mid-century period, and Wanderman looks especially fetching in her brilliant, second-act red.
The play runs through October 30 with reservations available at 518 392-6264. For more go to www.ghentplayhouse.org.