On Theater: Hitchcock thriller returns to stage roots

Though many film lovers are familiar with the screen version of "Dial M For Murder" starring Grace Kelly, the work originated on stage with British actress Jane Baxter, seen in this undated file photo from the 1930s, in the lead role. (File photo)

Mention “Dial M for Murder” and most moviegoers will conjure Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 suspense-laden drama in which Grace Kelly turns the tables on her would-be killer.

But the story first saw the light of day two years earlier as a London stage production.

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Playwright Frederick Knott's intriguing drama is getting a rare local theatrical treatment at the Westminster Community Playhouse, where two exceptional performances spur this all-too-familiar tale into a true compelling drama.

Director Bob May is well aware of the play's cinematic pedigree and even adds a Hitchcockian touch of his own as the lights fade on this chatty-yet-engrossing exercise. May has updated the 1952 story by 13 years, possibly so he could use a plethora of Brit hits from the ‘60s as preshow and intermission music.

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“Dial M” focuses on an amoral English tennis player who has, as Cole Porter might say, wived it weathily, and now plans a lethal separation for the same motive. Also, he's aware of his wife's past dalliance with an American TV writer who pops into the picture as well.

In an electrically conniving performance matching evil with charm, Jesse Seann Atkinson enacts the scheming husband who first lures an old classmate into a servile position and then plots a seemingly perfect murder. Atkinson's silky smooth demeanor enriches his unappealing character.

As his duplicitous-yet-sympathetic wife, Justine DeAngelo skillfully projects the anguish of a woman thrown into an untenable situation. She is particularly adept in the murder scene, which is delivered with stark realism.

Eduardo Mora, as the Yank video scripter and DeAngelo's strident defender, comes off a bit unevenly at first but warms to his assignment. Eric Nelson keeps calm and carries on effectively as a proper Scotland Yard investigator.

A key figure in this homicidal exercise is Mason Maskell as the thug recruited by Atkinson to carry out his project. Maskell projects pure menace in his plotting session and handles the play's lone segment of violence (which he also choreographed) superbly.

While most audience members will be familiar with the vintage Hitchcock version, watching “Dial M for Murder” on stage still carries the chill of immediacy in this involving production at the Westminster Community Playhouse

If You Go

What: “Dial M for Murder”

Where: Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St., Westminster

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 23

Cost: $22 - $20

Information: (714) 893-8626

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