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Gremlin Theatre keeps 'Dial M for Murder' simply tension-filled

Alyssa Kristine Photography

Alyssa Kristine Photography

Dial M for Murder is best known as a 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film, but that movie was based on Frederick Knott’s 1952 play. In TV movies, countless theatrical stagings, and yet more movies (1998’s A Perfect Murder), the story has pleased popcorn-munchers for seven decades.

No wonder: It’s a marvel of dramaturgical construction. Except for one thrillingly physical moment (see the title), it’s a deliciously slow burn. The mostly British characters get a little short with one another, but they don’t yell or throw punches. One man holds all the cards, and the other characters circle him with decorous insistence, trying to figure out if he’s bluffing.

Gremlin Theatre’s compact thrust stage makes an excellent venue for the company’s tight new production. Director Brian Columbus uses the full space, and you feel like you’re trapped in an escape room with these increasingly desperate characters. Ultimately, a life depends on whether the right people manage to solve the puzzle.

As a writer, Knott achieved quality rather than quantity: He finished only three plays, and, coincidentally, one of the other two— Wait Until Dark—is playing simultaneously at Theatre in the Round in an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher. All three pieces rely on clever premises, and Dial M has a textbook setup for a drawing-room thriller.

Having married Margot (Emily Dussault) for her money, Tony (Peter Christian Hansen) discovers that the loveless marriage has resulted in his wife taking a secret lover (Dan Hopman). Tony decides to collect his inheritance early by hiring an acquaintance (Grant Henderson) to kill Margot, making it look like a robbery gone wrong. It goes wrong, all right, but not in the way Tony expects.

Carl Schoenborn’s functional scenic design is nothing like the lush and detailed set the Jungle Theater team created for their 2012 production of this play, but this cast keeps you so fascinated, you wouldn’t have time to study the wallpaper anyway. Columbus has assembled a tense triangle at the story’s core. Dussault plays Margot with just the right combination of intelligence and trust, and a good-natured Hopman makes us understand why Margot would lean on him.

The role of Tony is a fastball right over the plate for Hansen, a superb actor who also runs Gremlin Theatre but is not always used to strong effect in his own company’s productions. He’s at his best playing charming but damaged characters (his Brick in the Guthrie’s 2012 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was spot-on), and here he’s a villain we love to hate. Eventually Alan Sorenson shows up as a police inspector looking to close the case, and Knott’s plot does a double-flip to land firmly on its feet.

Theaters today know they’re competing with the infinite array of streaming flat-screen entertainment options. Gremlin Theatre is providing ample reason to get off your couch and ditch Hitch for an absorbing and entertaining production of this classic play as it’s meant to be seen: on the stage.

IF YOU GO:

Dial M for Murder
Gremlin Theatre
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul
Through September 30; 1-888-71-TICKETS