Murder-related slapstick humor is having its day in the sun this season. On Broadway, there's Jefferson Mays' star turn in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, and off-Broadway, Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz star in the hilarious two-man tour de force Murder for Two.
Murder for Two is written (and was originally performed) by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair. But when the production moved from Chicago to New York City in the spring of 2013, Ryback and Blumenkrantz took over the comedy's two demanding roles. Ryback plays the detective in this Agatha Christie-esque whodunit, while Blumenkrantz plays the mystery's myriad suspects. Both multitalented performers also sing, dance, play the piano, and most important, infuse the performance with their own special brands of silly.
Ryback and Blumenkrantz are preparing to part when composer Joe Kinosian returns to the musical in the role of the suspects (creating yet another hysterical dynamic opposite Ryback) beginning January 20. But before that happens, TheaterMania ducked into the West Village's Tea and Sympathy for some tea (delightfully free of poison — unlike the pot in the play) with the two actors. The pair discussed their journey since coming into the show as strangers less than a year ago, an adventure that has included fateful coincidences, terrifying rehearsals, and shockingly great chemistry.
How were you first introduced to Murder for Two?
Brett Ryback: I first encountered it by way of one of our producers in February of last year. I happened to be in New York around the time they were looking at people, and in March I had a meeting with the composer and lyricist, who it turns out is the nephew of my seventh-grade teacher. So that sort of started this whirlwind of like, Oh my god, this is a little kismet. And then I came back in April, auditioned for Scott, our director, [and] got a callback. Then I came back in June, met Jeff, and started working.
Jeff Blumenkrantz: And then the show was alive.
What did you think when you first saw the script?
Jeff Blumenkrantz: It was scary. I was like, I don't know how to do this. I don't know how anyone does this and I don't know what it's going to look like, but I was game to try, and you know, I had to do a lot of the character switching in the audition, and I was like, All right, what if it looks like this? It was very awkward.
Brett Ryback: I grew up with a real appreciation for the Marx Brothers and that kind of humor…So this [is the] kind of chaotic humor I really jived with, and I was surprised to see that other people of my generation were writing it and appreciating it in the same way.
What was the rehearsal process like?
Jeff Blumenkrantz: What was amazing was, when you're doing a two-actor play with an accompanist, you don't ever get a break. You are on every second of the rehearsal. If he's working on his solo, I'm playing it. If they're changing the choreography, I'm playing the dance rehearsal. I think that was maybe one of the reasons why the rehearsal period was so like—
Brett Ryback: Trying.
Jeff Blumenkrantz: Oh, god. It was terrifying.
How much improv is there in a given show?
Jeff Blumenkrantz: Well, there's always improvisation if something goes wrong. We don't ignore things. We talk about it.
Brett Ryback: And there's always an element of play and mischief.
Jeff Blumenkrantz: That's my favorite thing to do. If he throws me something, I throw it back twice as hard. And that's fun. You're not going to start throwing me weird things now because I said that, are you?
Brett Ryback: No, this is the thing, it's never intentional. It's always in the moment.
How did you develop this rapport?
Brett Ryback: That's a tricky question. It is something that is, I think to both of us, shocking. The fact that people would comment on our chemistry is a rewarding surprise, because it wasn't ever something that we necessarily concerned ourselves with.
Jeff Blumenkrantz: Not for a second. Neither of us comes from a comedy background at all, and so we just really looked at this like we're doing a theater job. And the chemistry was a by-product of that process.
Brett Ryback: From the standpoint of being an actor, this piece forces me to constantly be listening and be present in the now because of a) how fast it is and b) how much we're responsible for it. I think that's part of where the chemistry comes from, because…we're on each other, watching and listening and just right there.
Jeff Blumenkrantz: I have a slightly different experience of that phenomenon, which is [that] I feel like I have to be one hundred percent present and twenty seconds ahead.
What would you want people who haven't seen the show to know about it?
Jeff Blumenkrantz: For me, or maybe us, more than being even a musical or a murder mystery, this show is like a love letter to the theater. It's what two people can accomplish with a handful of props and a lot of creativity. That's what I feel like people walk away with at the end.