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Dial M for Murder Opens Clarion Performing Arts Center

Seated – Adrienne Dolan, David Richardson. Standing – Brian Dalhart Johnson, Juan Berumen, Steve Ortiz. All photos by Heidi Alletzhauser.

An intimate new performance center has opened in Chinatown as part of the Clarion Music Center, a music education facility dedicated to preserving Chinese culture while exposing the community to other art forms. An opening celebration took place on March 10 with the theme of the Forbidden City, honoring San Francisco’s prominent Asian nightclub of the ’40s and ’50s. The facility was festooned with wonderful photos from the era, and entertainment was provided by Grant Avenue Follies, comprised of Asian professional dancers from earlier eras who entertain and raise funds for senior communities.

Adrienne Dolan, Juan Berumen.

SF City Theatre Company, led by David Acevedo, has had an irregular and peripatetic past, but now settles into Clarion as its new home. Its opening theatrical offering is Dial M for Murder, best known for the movie version directed by Alfred Hitchcock, with the screenplay by Frederick Knott. But its claustrophobic setting suggests its birth as a stage play, which was also penned by Knott.

Premiered in 1952, the original setting is London. For this production, the timeframe remains the same, but the locale shifts to San Francisco in a period of great class and style. Given that the action occurs inside an apartment, the change of venue dictates little alteration other than accents, the replacement of London references with those of San Francisco, and the police detective having an affect more like Peter Falk’s Columbo than John William’s Chief Inspector Hubbard.

The selection is perfect for a small venue as the living room setting and the cast are correspondingly small. Not to mention, the play is a classic – a fine representation of a crime procedural with psychological underpinnings and razor sharp logic involved in the solution. What’s more, suspense involving conflict between spouses is especially chilling, and Hitchcock couldn’t be a better source. In addition to this offering, he also directed the likes of Suspicion and Strangers on a Train, suspenses with unsettling marital situations.

David Richardson. Brian Dalhart Johnson.

The plot cannot be discussed in any detail without giving too much away, but the set up is that Tony is an over-the-hill, touring tennis player without much career prospect other than the grind of selling sporting goods, which appears mundane for a man of his cultivation. His wife, Margo, has money, and Tony would like to have it for his own. His challenge is to turn her bank account into his.

The characters in the play are quite strikingly drawn, and each, except the inspector, has secrets. Margo presents great vulnerability and is victimized, thus becoming totally empathetic, while Tony is a well-mannered cad. The third member of the triangle, crime fiction writer Max, has had a previous relationship with Margo and is always on her side. One contrast that is lost with the San Francisco setting is that in the original, Max is a rather bumptious American archetype, and that distinction doesn’t hold as well here.

Steve Ortiz, Adrienne Dolan, David Richardson.

The look and feel of the staging is quite good. Except that the bedroom is not blocked off from the living room, the set has all of the right accoutrements, and the costumery fits the period. The actors give suitable physical appearances with the exception that David Richardson, as Tony, is a little older than appropriate.

Director Acevedo was clearly driven by Grace Kelly’s screen performance in Dial M as the victim, Margo. Not only did he cast Adrienne Dolan, an attractive, svelte, long waisted woman much like Kelly, but Dolan is coiffed with a similar hairdo that would really strengthen the likeness if it were blond rather than brunette. A look at the production photos from the movie also confirm that the red chiffon cocktail dress that Margo wears in this play is a dead ringer for the signature costume from the movie.

An area for improvement in the production is to add energy to the performances which would benefit from stronger conviction to the characters. This deficiency is compounded by excessive stumbling over lines which undermines the crispness of the dialogue. We hope and expect that those aspects will improve deeper into the run.

Dial M for Murder is written by Frederick Knott, produced by SF City Theatre Company, and plays at Clarion Performing Arts Center, 2 Waverly Place, San Francisco, CA through March 24, 2018.


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