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A suspenseful case of boy meets girl, boy tries to have girl bumped off

In the play that inspired Hitchcock’s suspense classic, a retired tennis pro plots the murder of his wife, only to see her turn the tables on the assailant. When she goes on trial for murder, he’s got another avenue to get rid of her, but will plan B work out?

That question can only be answered by following along the twists and turns of Dial “M” for Murder, the Elmira Theatre Company production that opens next week.

The Frederick Knott play that spawned the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly was just the kind of gripping material for an ETC staging, says the production’s director.

“I brought the play to the selection committee,” said Thom Smith, describing it as a classic that fits into ETC’s traditional wheelhouse. “I felt it had lasting appeal – it’s like Arsenic and Old Lace or The Mousetrap.”

While a classic murder mystery in many ways, it’s not a whodunit – we know in short order who dies and why – but rather a matter of finding out if the man responsible for everything will get away with it.

Tony Wendice, a former professional tennis player, has married Margot for her money. They seemed happy enough until Tony goes to play the grass court season in America one summer. Margot stays behind in London, where she meets writer Max and the two share instant chemistry and fall in love. Margot decides to end the affair, but not before Tony sees them together having dinner at Max’s flat.

There is no way that Tony is going to lose all the money, so now she has to go, in the very final sense. He hatches a plan and plays the long game. To bump her off, he blackmails an old schoolmate into strangling his wife at the precise moment he has a perfect alibi, being in the company of Margot’s lover. Things go off the rails when Margot kills the attacker in self-defence, but that’s just a hiccup for quick-thinking Tony, who sees an opportunity to frame her for premeditated murder, for which she’ll hang. Mission accomplished. But is it?

The story is a “gold-digger theme in reverse, with the husband being the one marrying for money,” said Smith.

“It’s fun to watch Tony manipulating every circumstance to his favour,” added Smith’s wife, Mic Michenfelder-Smith, who is producing the play.

Will the manipulator get away with it? Well, that will depend on the lover (Max) and the Scotland Yard detective (Chief Inspector Hubbard), who’s got more than a passing interest in the case.

Deception, betrayal, passion and greed drive the story along.

The ETC production maintains the early 1950s London setting of the original play.

Smith has been with the six-person cast to get the period right, including avoiding mannerisms and quirks that aren’t in keeping with the 1950s. Manners are also a big consideration, as it was still a time where gentlemen and ladies behaved in a much more traditional way, he noted.

While set in London, not all of the characters have an English accent. Where the original story has Max (Dave Humphrey) as an American, Margot (Kimberley Young) too is cast that way. Two of the other principals – Tony (Steve Robinson) and Hubbard (Doug McDonald) – adopt English accents, with would-be murderer Captain Lesgate (Matthias Schonlau) a German. The cast is rounded out by an English copper, Thompson (Mark Dakin).

The Elmira Theatre Company production of Dial “M” for Murder runs Thursdays through Sundays, November 3-18. Tickets are available through the ETC website, www.elmiratheatre.com, or by calling KW Tickets at 519-578-1570.

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