Cedar City • Murder mystery/thrillers take two approaches. One is the classic whodunit; a crime is committed, but the audience is unaware of the killer's identity and joins a detective in deciphering the clues to solve it. In the second, we know who's guilty from the beginning, and the question becomes whether and how the killer will be caught.
One of the best of this type is Frederick Knott's tightly constructed melodrama "Dial M for Murder," which just opened in a slick, stylish production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Some theatergoers will be familiar with the story from the classic 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film.
Tony (David Ivers), a tennis star who has outlived his glory, marries a wealthy woman, Margot (Melinda Pfundstein), to maintain his lavish lifestyle. When he discovers she's having an affair with Max (John Taylor Phillips), he becomes obsessed with fear and jealousy and blackmails an old acquaintance with a shady past (Todd Denning) into killing her, but the plans go awry, and Tony must tap all his ingenuity to stay one step ahead of a dogged police inspector (Jonathan Gillard Daly).
Knowing Tony's intentions and voyeuristically witnessing his machinations make viewers complicit, while injecting psychological complexity into the play. Because we know more than the characters, Knott's taut, witty dialogue acquires ironic and darkly humorous undertones.
The playwright exploits this further by giving the Max character the job of a television mystery writer, who points out that in life there's no such thing as a perfect murder. It's also intriguing to see the way everyday objects like a letter, house key and pair of scissors can attain sinister significance.
Director Brian Vaughn has wisely chosen to treat the play's period vision and construction as an asset. Jo Winiarski's elegant drawing-room set with its fireplace, white molding and tapestry wallpaper becomes increasingly disheveled as Tony's confident facade disintegrates.
Donna Ruzika's lighting is moody and dim. Rachel Laritz's costumes are sophisticated and very British, and Barry Funderburg has composed a lush, slightly ominous score that captures the feel of a 1950s film and punctuates the emotional highs and lows. Vaughn's well-paced direction offers an interesting mix of characters exchanging meaningful looks or refusing to look at each other at all.
The actors are adept at infusing depth and vitality into their characters. From the first, Ivers gives his suave, socially savvy Tony a slightly sinister edge that darkens as he goes along. Pfundstein undercuts her worldly wise Margot with trusting vulnerability, while Phillips' down-to-earth Max is candid and insightful.
The con-man self-assurance of Denning's Lesgate veers increasingly closer to desperation as he runs out of options, and the bumbling, pedestrian exterior of Daly's inspector gradually peels away to expose an uncanny knowledge of human behavior.
The fact that we return to murder mysteries again and again, even though we know the outcome, probably says something about human nature that invites further exploration. What's clear is that a quintessential thriller like "Dial M for Murder" possesses unending power to entertain us and never seems out of date.
'Dial M for Murder'
R This classy production underscores the resilience of the timeless thriller.
When • Reviewed Wednesday, Sept. 28; in rotating repertory with "The Winter's Tale" and "Noises Off" through Oct. 22.
Where • Randall Theatre, 300 W. Center St., Cedar City
Tickets • $26-$62 (discounts for groups, students, seniors); at 800-PLAYTIX or http://www.bard.org.
Running time • 2 1/2 hours (including two intermissions)