×

Off Broadway Review: ‘Murder for Two’

Two-person musical dials it up to 11 when a subtler hand might have scored

With:
Jeff Blumenkrantz, Brett Ryback.

Murder for Two,” a two-character spoof by Joe Kinosian (book & music) and Kellen Blair (book & lyrics) of an old-fashioned stage whodunit, is the first musical produced by Second Stage at its Uptown venue.  Pity it lands with such a thud.  The premise is certainly promising: one actor, a proficient pianist who can also carry a tune, plays a cop working his first homicide, while a second singer-actor, also adept at the keyboard, plays about a dozen murder suspects.  But, ouch! The aggressive comedic style adopted by helmer Scott Schwartz is about as subtle as a gun to the head.

Could be that the material was handled with more wit and imagination at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where the show was developed and had its premier performance.  But in this local edition, the cleverness of the original idea is crushed by a bullying performance style that force-feeds the comedy instead of letting it stand on its feet and speak for itself.

The dozen-plus characters (including the invisible ones) who figure in the corny plot were plucked from every Agatha Christie novel you think you’ve read, so it’s okay to call them genre archetypes instead of, say, cliched stereotypes.  The murder victim, a rich and famous novelist who revealed his friends’ dirty secrets in his books, clearly deserved what he got — a shot in the head, a knife in the gut, or a poisoned cup of tea, depending on who happens to be telling the story.  But everyone at his wake-cum-pizza party had a motive, and it’s up to young Officer (and would-be Detective) Marcus to determine whodunit.  Once he stops climbing the walls and settles down, left-coast thesp Brett Ryback turns in a worthy Gotham debut.

It falls to Jeff Blumenkrantz, a performer so loose-limbed and lanky he resembles an unstrung marionette, to play every last one of these suspects. Not the easiest task in the world, to be sure, but not beyond the talents of, say, Jefferson Mays, Michael Urie, or any thesp who managed to land a job in “The 39 Steps.”

Blumenkrantz’s most effective technique is finding a signature physical pose that instantly nails a character.  That M.O. works best with suspects like Barrette Lewis, a well-known (and well-named) ballerina who is constantly en pointe, or the 12-member boys’ choir represented by nine-year-old Timmy, who talks out of the side of his mouth and walks on his knees.

But that physical agility doesn’t translate into vocal versatility, and Blumenkrantz puts his foot into his mouth whenever he tries on elaborate regional accents and distinctive speech patterns.  Dahlia, the victim’s widow and an aged Southern belle, sounds like a drag queen having a hit of oxygen. And Steph, the simpering college girl who is determined to hook up with Marcus, speaks in a breathy lisp that invites slow strangulation.

Other characters are so unexceptional they might as well be garden gnomes. But at least garden gnomes are distinguished by their cute little caps and pointy-toed footwear, which raises the question of why the designers were so stingy with props and costume pieces that might have added character color. Or why Beowulf Boritt wasn’t charged with designing a booby-trapped set that might have punched up the laughs.

The creatives probably felt that the character songs would take care of all that.  But while Ryback and Blumenkrantz are extremely entertaining when they’re pounding away at competitive piano duets, the individual character songs tend to lack, well, character.  One palpable hit is “So What If I Did?”, Barrette’s laughably unsuccessful attempt to clear her name:  ” So what if this morning we got in a fight? / So what? / Who cares what we said? / So what if I told him I’d kill him tonight?”

But in general, the best songs are the full-blown musical numbers that play to Blumenkrantz’s gift for physical comedy, like the ingenious number that has the thesp going through a variety of silly dance moves.  More of this, and we might not care if we never find out whodunit.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'Murder for Two'

Second Stage Theater Uptown; 99 seats; $40 top.  Opened July 25, 2013.  Reviewed July 24.  Running time:  ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.

Production: A Second Stage Theater presentation of a Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of a musical in one act with book and music by Joe Kinosian and book and lyrics by Kellen Blair.

Creative: Directed by Scott Schwartz.  Set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Andrea Lauer; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Jill BC DuBoff; music director, David Caldwell; movement, Wendy Seyb; production stage manager, Lori Ann Zepp.

Cast: Jeff Blumenkrantz, Brett Ryback.

More Legit

  • Broadway-Breakfast-Split

    Variety to Celebrate Second Business of Broadway Breakfast With Thomas Schumacher, Diane Paulus and Diablo Cody

    Variety has announced the lineup for its second annual Business of Broadway breakfast presented by City National Bank. Joining the breakfast on Oct. 7 is the president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher, who will take part in the event’s keynote conversation. In his position, Thomas oversees the company’s worldwide stage productions, which [...]

  • Sue Wagner John Johnson

    Tony-Winning Producers Sue Wagner and John Johnson Announce New Venture, Wagner Johnson Productions

    Sue Wagner and John Johnson, seven-time Tony award-winning producers, announced Wednesday that they have embarked on a new theatrical business venture, Wagner Johnson Productions. Under the name, they will produce and general manage a wide scope of theater productions. One of Wagner Johnson Productions’ current projects is a musical rendition of “Almost Famous,” which will [...]

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s first appearance on the Great White Way since his 2014 performance in the revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” The five-year absence saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content