It is no longer enough to be a triple threat (a performer who can act, sing, and dance). Now you have to play an instrument. This has been true since the advent of the John Doyle concept. (Doyle is the director who made a career of reimagining Sondheim musicals with the actors subbing as the orchestra.) That reality comes into sharp focus in Murder for Two, now receiving its New York premiere at Second Stage's uptown space, the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. This musical-whodunit relies on just two performers to act, sing, dance, and play all of the music. It is an incredible feat of athletic theatricality to behold.
By adding music to their farcical murder mystery, authors Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair seem to have one-upped Charles Ludlam, whose two-man The Mystery of Irma Vep has been a theater staple for decades. A large Steinway grand piano dominates center stage in Murder for Two. This two-hander is actually a four-hander with both actors switching off as accompanist, occasionally tickling out the more complicated sections of the score together. Hands cross over and around one another on the keyboard in a complicated ballet of ebony and ivory. The piano is like a third character and has been seamlessly integrated into the show, offering plenty of opportunity for musical hijinks.
The story follows Marcus Moscowicz (Brett Ryback), a bright-eyed police officer looking to be promoted to detective. He sees his opportunity when murder-mystery novelist Arthur Whitney is surreptitiously slain at his own party, appropriately being held at his big creepy mansion on top of a hill (brilliantly silhouetted on the exposed brick of the upstage wall by shining a stage light through a pile of trash).
Jeff Blumenkrantz plays all the suspects...that is to say everyone else in the play. There's Whitney's batty wife, Dahlia, his prima-ballerina mistress, Barrette, and his dumb grad-student niece, Steph, to name a few of the ten characters Blumenkrantz embodies. Curiously, Whitney used all of them as the basis for characters in his novels, including Officer Marcus (character name "Jarcus Joscowicz"), by harvesting their deep personal secrets from unscrupulous psychologist Dr. Griff (also Blumenkrantz). Everyone had a motive to off the nosy novelist, so everyone is a suspect.
The party guests are grotesque caricatures, which is necessary for clarity considering Blumenkrantz never changes costume. The sophomoric and self-aware humor of the book occasionally makes the evening feel like a live-action Clue-themed episode of The Simpsons or Family Guy. An upstage shelf prominently displays a candlestick, a wrench, a lead pipe, a knife, a revolver, and a rope.
Blumenkrantz is thrilling to watch, his rubbery face changing on a dime from one character to the next. He violently accompanies himself on the piano as Barrette in her big number, "So What If I Did?" He tap-dances on his knees while portraying three streetwise nine-year-old boys in the song "A Lot Woise." He registers a convincing argument — with himself — as feisty old couple Murray and Barb. Too much is never enough for Blumenkrantz.
This style contrasts with, yet flourishes under the less-is-more approach of director Scott Schwartz, who never lets this crazy train slow down. The minimal, unobtrusive design ensures a brisk pace for the evening that leaves both actors swimming in their own perspiration.
Murder for Two is not really about stealthily dropping crumbs for the audience to pick up in order to solve a mystery. Like any too-clever-by-half Agatha Christie novel, Kinosian and Blair withhold evidence and sloppily tie up any loose ends to make this "perfect crime" work. It is, however, a bawdy-yet-intelligent send-up of the murder-mystery genre, performed in awe-inspiring fashion by two insanely talented quadruple threats.