The perfect murder is an enduring staple of fiction, the enjoyment of which often comes from the fact that we secretly empathize with the murderer, our hearts dreading the tightening of the noose, usually at the hands of a dogged detective, even as our heads know justice must be served.

The most perfect murder is one committed by someone else, the simple premise at the heart of one of the most devious, enthralling murder mysteries ever, "Dial M for Murder," being staged by the Great Falls Players through June 12. English writer Frederick Knott wrote the story in 1952 as a BBC television play. It went on to become a hit on stage in the West End and a film masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock. The basic plot line has inspired many copycat movies, including the 1998 Michael Douglas-Gwyneth Paltrow flick, "A Perfect Murder." But this play is the source material, still able to thrill audiences half a century later.

It's London, early 1950s. Aging tennis pro Tony Wendice married for money; now he wants to murder for money. But it wouldn't do to perform the deed himself. So he takes his time, spending a year setting up the crime. He knows his wife had a fling once with visiting American Max Halliday, and he uses the information to his advantage. Wendice blackmails an old schoolmate into taking the most active role in the plot, allowing himself a perfect alibi. Every detail is considered and taken into account. It would seem that Wendice has planned the perfect murder. But, of course, things don't always go entirely as planned.

Except for one assault scene, the drama in this tale is based entirely on dialogue, as Knott carefully peels back the layers of deceit, revealing surprises and twists. But the actors need a skilled director, one who understands how to calibrate the pacing in a way that will allow the suspense to steadily build.

In Great Falls's production, the actors seem on their own, the primary members of the cast turning in capable individual performances but with the overall presentation often listless and lacking the dynamics required to fully take advantage of Knott's intricate plot. Under Jerry Bonnes' direction, the story is laid out flatly, step by step, the pacing never changing, the depths of suspense largely unexplored.

As Tony Wendice, Gary Lee Mahmoud is smooth and arrogant, moving about with an athlete's grace, befitting his character's profession. Laura Peterson projects basic decency as Margo, viewing her past dalliance with regret and remaining a sympathetic character.

With his mousy little mustache and several affectations, including the constant use of a silver cigarette case, Mark Malkasian seems more British than American, but he still manages to put some bite into the role of Halliday, who remains smitten with Margot and hovers around the edges of the story. Efe Cumming is slightly bland but still effective as Lesgate, Wendice's weapon of choice for the crime. And Douglas Goodin, making his first stage appearance in 18 years, brings real-life credibility as a federal law enforcement officer to the role of crafty Inspector Hubbard.

It is quite difficult to mimic a film-noir atmosphere on the stage. The effort here is further undermined by an extremely poor sound design and unforgivably shabby construction work on Bill Glikbarg's nicely detailed set, both of which chip away at the realism and moody ambiance.

But most of the pieces for a successful play are in place; perhaps they will coalesce as performances continue.

"Dial M for Murder" ends June 12. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee, at the Alden Theatre of the McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave. For tickets, visit or call the box office at 703-790-9223. For information, call 703-759-6224 or visit www.gfonline.org.

Mark Malkasian and Laura Peterson are caught in a web of suspense in the Great Falls Players' production of "Dial M for Murder."