Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair's Murder for Two is a the zany two-man murder-mystery musical that played an extended run at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre over the summer courtesy of Second Stage Uptown. Now moved to New World Stages, this show thrives on the improbably wacky and metatheatrical. It's a sure winner with theater geeks (look for the Patti LuPone shout-out), but anyone with a sense of humor is going to walk away from this tuner with a big grin. This is showmanship at its finest.
For those who missed it the first time around, Murder for Two takes place in a big spooky mansion, home of famous novelist Arthur Whitney. When Whitney is shot and killed during his own surprise birthday party, Officer Marcus Moscowicz (Brett Ryback) rushes to the scene to investigate, hoping that a solved murder will get him promoted to detective. He finds the house occupied by Whitney's eccentric southern wife, Dahlia (Jeff Blumenkrantz), his Nancy Drew-wannabe niece, Steph (Jeff Blumenkrantz), and a trio of precocious kids from Badoinkaville (Jeff Blumenkrantz), just to name a few. Yes, Blumenkrantz plays them all in a tour de force that keeps our jaws hovering near the floor as the actor practically drowns in a puddle of his own sweat. Oh, and he also accompanies himself on the piano, occasionally playing four-handed alongside Ryback.
It is thrilling to watch these two performers work. Blumenkrantz contorts his rubbery face and modulates his formidable voice to create 10 different personalities. His characterizations are so clear and specific that little is needed in terms of design to differentiate the roles. A pair of glasses here, a baseball cap there, costume designer Andrea Lauer uses a light brush to accent Blumenkrantz's heavy strokes. The straight man to Blumenkrantz's clown, Ryback matches his partner toe to toe with equal energy and a winning smile.
Beowulf Boritt's set has retained most of its features from the uptown run, including the pile of trash that becomes a big spooky mansion in silhouette. Setting this madcap two-hander in an empty theater — upstage is dominated by an exposed brick wall, and a ghost light greets all who enter the space — gives us a sense of the possible: Could these two performers just be making this up as they go along? This transplanted production suffers a bit from the lack of a center aisle (well-used uptown), but script revisions and deepened performances more than make up for that loss of functionality.
Kinosian and Blair have wisely added a new opening number that introduces each of the characters, ensuring that everyone in the audience is on the same page from minute one. A silent disagreement in the opening moments of the show about who will sit at the piano first, Blumenkrantz or Ryback, sets the tone for the subtextual drama that follows. At moments this show does feel like improv comedy performed by two masters of the form, but the type in which the actors occasionally say no: "Still me," Blumenkrantz demurs as Steph, pushing an imaginary lock of hair behind his ear when Ryback attempts to interrogate smoldering/psychotic ballerina Barrette Lewis. When your scene partner plays every other role, what hope do you have to drive the narrative?
Director Scott Schwartz draws out this plot-beneath-the-plot, giving the audience an extra layer of enjoyment. You'll love this irreverent and fast-paced send-up of the murder-mystery genre, but it is the performers behind it who will leave you awestruck.