The famous novelist Arthur Whitney is dead—murdered at his own birthday party, no less, in his own living room, surrounded by his own quirky friends and neighbors, who are now the suspects. And yet, other than maybe Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, who’d have guessed that murder could be so much fun?
Murder for Two, which opened last week in the Second Stage Uptown series at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, is an ingenious, hilarious little musical whodunit. Written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, with music by Mr. Kinosian and lyrics by Mr. Blair, and directed by Scott Schwartz, it’s got the investigative mind of Agatha Christie, the make-’em-laugh spirit of vaudeville, and the minimalist, let’s-put-on-a-show creativity of something like Peter and the Starcatcher or even The 39 Steps. It’s a noir-tinged, slapsticky detective story elevated to heights of delicious farce by its clever authorial and directorial conceits, and especially its two extraordinary performers.
You see, as much as Whitney was a beloved institution in his small New England town, everyone living there had reason to hate him, too, as details of their lives kept appearing in his best-sellers. “I was quite fond of his books,” says Marcus (the very game Brett Ryback), the investigating cop, “especially his latest, Small Town Life. “The way it captured small town life really hit the mark.” The crowd—to be kept in the house until the murder is solved—is filled with people who had good reason to want to see Whitney dead. And they’re all portrayed by one actor, the remarkable and protean Jeff Blumenkrantz, helped by a collection of eyeglasses, ball caps, accents and not much else.
There’s Dahlia, Whitney’s Southern-belle wife, who had to abandon her dreams of the stage after their marriage and who seems more concerned about the missing ice cream than her dead husband. There’s the feisty old couple from next door—the husband regularly accusing the wife of murder—who served as the inspiration for Whitney’s The Feisty Older Couple. The friendly old psychiatrist, who appeared in Whitney’s The Friendly Old Psychiatrist Is Innocent, is revealed to have been selling his patients’ stories to Whitney in return for a positive portrayal—but he may now be out of stories. Barrette Lewis, the famous ballerina with a history of violence, had an affair with Whitney, and now she’s afraid he was planning to reveal their liaison.
There’s also Steph, Whitney’s niece, a criminology grad student who asks too many questions—the novel about her was titled My Niece Is a Dumb Grad Student Who Asks Too Many Questions—and who has a crush on Marcus, and a trio of old-fashioned, wisecracking, hardscrabble local boys, on hand to sing at the party and who’ve seen a lot worse than a murder. (“We spent a night trapped in Ikea once / Beside a kid with diarrhea once / We saw a show called Mamma Mia! once / And still we’re somehow smilin’!”) And there’s even Marcus, fresh out of the academy, desperate to be a detective, scarred by the revelation of the true, dark nature of a previous partner-slash-lover—and aware that that revelation formed the basis for Whitney’s Unsolved Hearts. Finally, don’t forget Lou. He’s the officer assisting Marcus, and he’s the only character we never see. But he’s there for Marcus and others to consult with and talk to—and that’s a good thing, too: “Why, if you weren’t here, I’d just be thinking all these things,” more than one character tells him, metatheatrically.
It’s a funny, jokey script, if a little worn; what makes it so fresh and fun is Mr. Blumenkrantz’s performance as the many suspects. He’s a gifted comedian, an elastic-faced clown, and also a respectable actor. His rapid-fire character shifts bring this comedy to its most dizzying heights—but he’s ably abetted in that by his barely straitlaced straight man, Mr. Ryback. Even playing just one character, his mania—as the desperate, ambitious, flustered, naïve, wounded, clever cop—matches his scene partner’s. The two men also compete for the lone piano, at which they take turns, and sometimes join together, to play Mr. Kinosian’s bouncy pastiche of a score. Mr. Blair’s lyrics are straightforward, clever and nicely expositional. Beowulf Boritt’s set is a perfectly complement to this stripped-down show: a near-bare stage, with just a piano, a bit of curtain and some junk—including each potential Clue weapon displayed on shelves.
It’s worth noting that Murder for Two takes a while to get going. I suspect that’s Mr. Schwartz’s direction, which leaves matters a bit slower-paced and rather mechanical feeling in the early moments. But once things get going, the play is a light, perfect, funny summer delight. Simply, Murder for Two kills.