(Michelle Liu Coughlin (pictured) and Daniel Domingues are making their Virginia Stage Company performance debuts in Dial M For Murder.)
By Jerome Langston
“Well I make no apology for saying that I love this play. It’s a wonderful play. It’s a brilliant piece of writing,” said director and playwright, Mark Shanahan, after a long day of rehearsal earlier this week, within a spacious rehearsal space in downtown Norfolk, close to the Wells Theatre. Shanahan is back in the area, to direct the latest Virginia Stage Company production, Dial ‘M’ For Murder, the Frederick Knott penned play, which moves the company’s remarkable season 45, forward into 2024.
Shanahan, who frequently works with VSC, directed last season’s The 39 Steps, and wrote the A Merry Christmas Carol adaption of the Dickens classic, which just wrapped its annual, holiday season run last month. Dial ‘M’ For Murder has a small cast of only 5 actors, which includes actress Jan Neuberger, a renowned stage veteran, who is also a VSC newbie, though she’s worked several times prior as an actress in Shanahan productions. Jan joined us for the interview.
“Frederick Knott didn’t write many plays, but the ones he wrote — Wait Until Dark is also good, but this, he just knocked out the park,” stated Shanahan. Knott wrote Dial ‘M’ for television originally, and it premiered on BBC television, prior to its West End debut in London. “It’s amazing how the mechanics of the play work, like a little well-oiled machine. And it’s very human, and very dark, but very sinister at the same time,” Shanahan would add, a bit later. “And I think that’s just a miracle that he figured out how to do all that… and it’s still chugging along. It’s a a great, cracklin’ good thriller.”
The play premiered in London in June of 1952, before playing Broadway that October. The Alfred Hitchcock directed suspense thriller movie, with its screenplay by Knott, premiered in May of 1954, and was a box-office success. The movie starred Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, and Grace Kelly as Margot Wendice. Considered by many to be a classic of its genre — there have been notable remakes and film and TV releases over the years that have clearly been inspired by the film and play, including 1998’s A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.
In 1950s London, a retired English professional tennis player, is married to a wealthy socialite, for her money. However, the wife is having an affair, and that leads to a sinister plot to have her murdered, so that he can be the beneficiary of her considerable fortune. The plot doesn’t go as planned for the husband though, which forces Tony Wendice to frame his socialite wife, Margot. The investigation into the murder ensues from there.
VSC’s cast of this classic suspense thriller, includes Michelle Liu Coughlin as Margot Wendice, Daniel Domingues as Tony Wendice, Jan Neuberger as Inspector Hubbard, Steve Pacek as Captain Lesgate, and Joe Delafield as Max Halliday. Michelle, Jan and Daniel are making their VSC debuts, while Steve and Joe have acted here in prior shows. And most of the cast has worked in some capacity with Shanahan prior, except for the show’s Margot.
“If you look at the play as originally written, it’s four men who are obsessed with Margot on some level. And we’ve changed it here, so that Jan is playing the inspector, and I think the gender politics of the play change a bit, but it still matters to me, that everyone projects on to her, something that they need from her,” says the director. He then notes that Michelle has proven expert at managing all of that, and moves very beautifully in the room, “so she owns the room.” The set, which Mark describes as being bold in its colors, is really Margot’s space.
Regarding Jan’s role as Inspector Hubbard, which was written as a male character, the gender change adds an interesting, different context to the character and her interactions with the other actors on stage. Shanahan notes that there were women at that time in Scotland Yard, who were in the position of chief inspector. “I think as rehearsals have gone on, it’s become more and more apparent to me how really the gender switch for this role casts a very different light on the proceedings, without overtly changing anything,” said Jan, after being asked about playing this character. “It changes the flavor, I think, when I’m challenged.”
“I never played a role like this,” continued Jan, who celebrates her milestone 50-year anniversary in Actors Equity this year, as well as making her Broadway debut in 1974. “It is a very different kind of challenge, from most everything I’ve ever done.” Shanahan later reminds Jan though, that she’s played characters who are in charge before, and he knew that she had everything that the part needed, when he offered her the role. Mark prefers to work with actors whom he’s built relationships, and that he knows are just good at their craft. It makes his job as director easier. And he notes that the actors in this play are not easily satisfied. They are committed to discovery. And they trust him as their director. “This is the kind of director that actors crave,” says Jan, towards the end of our chat. “I am very grateful to be part of his circle.”
WANT TO GO?
Dial M For Murder
January 24-February 11
Presented by Virginia Stage Company