One’s affinity for Murder for Two comes down to taste and sensibility. Written by Joe Kinosian (book and lyrics) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics), it’s a murder mystery spoof for two actors in which one (Brett Ryback) plays a callow patrol cop thrust into the detective spotlight; another (Jeff Blumenkrantz) plays all the suspects and supporting passing characters; and both play piano, the only instrument used, accompanying themselves and each other. As you might expect, it’s done on a minimal set with much in the way of mime, sight gags and dexterity, along with a necessary Swiss-watch precision.
The inherent problem with musicalizing a murder mystery is that it defies the forward propulsion musicals tend to need. If you’re questioning witnesses, especially in a single setting, you can pretty much start with any and proceed through the list at random, because if one inevitably led to the next, we’d start eliminating the red herrings too quickly, when part of the trick is to keep the identity of the guilty party at bay for as long as possible. So in a certain odd sense, especially when you’re in the land of spoof, a libretto is really just linking material in a specialized revue. So what has to keep the material aloft is the delivery system.
The material itself, as I say, spoofs archetypes and does so for the most part with a wide-eyed innocence (pardon the word) that happily avoids the “wrong kind” of camp; it sticks to the closed-room mystery genre point. I’m not personally fond of this particular kind of silly satire, but Kinosian and Blair nonetheless take it to a higher standard than usual, with an eclectic and playful score; craftsmanlike, focused lyrics and characterizations that…do pretty much what tyhey want them to do. Boyishly handsome Ryback is a terrific straight man and a perfect buffer for the madcap versatility of tall, lanky, smooth-headed Jeff Blumenktrantz, who expertly walks the fine line between playing for real stakes and staking each character through the heart with a broad shorthand stroke for easy distinction. Which is not easy at all.
The show has been making the regional rounds for a few years, and the current NYC-debut iteration is directed by Scott Schwartz. To my taste, Mr. Schwartz encourages too much in the way of ramming home the jokes, though Ryback and Blumenkrantz are far too savvy to sacrifice what they know about making comedy effortless, so I experienced a slightly unsettled energy to the evening, as direction and performance seemed to push against each other. In the end, I was mildly won over and mostly exhausted; but the audience with which I attended seemed to love it. And if a popular consensus would be your guide, I believe they represent it fairly.
I suppose either way, and in every sense of the phrase, Murder for Two as it exists at New World Stages, is a guilty pleasure…
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