As debut productions go, the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble's by-the-book, connect-the-dots production of the community theater staple Dial M for Murderis hardly the most auspicious of beginnings. Not for the county's most established storefront theater. Not for a company that bills itself as "Orange County's theater on the edge." Not for a group of theater artists who have worked diligently for two years to find and build a new space after vacating their original home in a Fullerton industrial park.
But while the troupe's first show in its new downtown-Fullerton digs is as exciting as a root canal—and demonstrably less essential—you can applaud the fact that the Vanguard is up and running again. For years, the Vanguard wasthe county's storefront-theater scene—along with the defunct Alternative Repertory Theater and Stages Theatre, which has survived all kinds of shit to lay claim to the title of the county's longest-running storefront theater.
The Vanguard has actually been around longer than Stages but has been on hiatus for more than two years. Thanks to the hard work of Artistic Director Wade Williamson and his associates, the company has found and opened a space in the most frenetically active downtown in the county. Along with a legion of alcohol licenses and cops, downtown Fullerton can now accurately say it has a theater in the heart of the city's remarkable downtown renaissance.
And based on the rest of the Vanguard's 2005-05, we're glad the troupe is back. John Henry Redwood's The Old Settler, Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visitand Nicky Silver's Raised in Captivityare merely three reasons to shout a lusty huzzah.
Choosing to produce those plays is good. Opting to launch with Dial M for Murderisn't. I make that claim based both on this production—which suffers from incoherent direction and uneven acting—as well as the choice itself. This is the kind of play that makes smart people hate theater. It's just a bunch of people yakking, gabbing and prattling on and on about . . . whatever. The plot is remarkable for the fact that it's ridiculously convoluted and hopelessly uninteresting.
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The only reason any theater should produce Dial M is it provides a great chance to either venerate or eviscerate 1950s gender relations: a woman has cheated on her husband and is thus reduced to a bland, unthinking repository of his obsession and vengeance. His plot to kill her—even though it backfires in more than one way—is played out on her meager consciousness with all the subtlety of a jackhammer on pavement.
There are some good things about this production. Anthony Cohen's Tony kicks ass as the former tennis pro turned pissed-off husband who concocts the rather hare-brained scheme to make his wife pay for that ultimate of betrayals: developing a taste for a cock that isn't his. From the moment he steps onstage, we hate Tony; Cohen's performance somehow makes him uncomfortably sympathetic. James Knudsen's Lesgate is perfectly understated as the murderous pawn in Tony's game, and Bob Kokol's inspector is equally effective as the cop with a conscience.
Still, it's hard to care about Dial M for Murder.A poorly written Columboor Murder She Wroteis infinitely more compelling than Frederick Knott's overdone, overrated play. Take a tip from someone who pretends to know: save your dough on this first show and earmark your clams for something later in Vanguard's brilliant season. There's a reason this troupe has been around for so long and has secured one of the most enviable venues in the county. But Dial M for Murderisn't it.
DIAL M FOR MURDER AT THE VANGUARD THEATRE ENSEMBLE, 120-A W. WILSHIRE AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 526-8007. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. $20; STUDENTS/SENIORS, $18.