Who killed Arthur Whitney, the successful New England novelist who knew everyone’s secrets—and used them in his books? Why doesn’t anyone in his shifty entourage seem to care that his corpse lies flat on the parlor floor? And not-so-incidentally, what happened to the ice cream the guests assembled for his surprise party had planned to enjoy?
These are the big questions motoring Murder for Two, a two-man, one-piano, no-set comedy running at Second Stage Uptown. As you might guess, this fluffy midsummer crowd-pleaser is pure confection—with doses of Clue, Agatha Christie, and paint-by-numbers musical comedy—plus just a hint of Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids. Murder pays winking homage to these familiar sources, proudly adhering to conventions while delivering old-fashioned zippy entertainment.
Murder for Two begins and ends with the cast (the kinetic duo of Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback) sharing the piano keyboard, and they alternate sitting at the baby grand throughout the rest of the show. Ryback plays Marcus, a junior cop desperately trying to make detective who hits pay dirt when he happens upon a dead body and a manse full of suspicious types—all of them played by Blumenkrantz. (The actor indicates each character switch with a change of accessory, a quick spin, or just a vocal shift.)
Marcus must crack the crowd and figure out whodunit—before his boss arrives and realizes the underling has been functioning as the senior detective he’s not. But nearly every guest is a suspect: Was it Dahlia, Arthur’s wife, a faux-ditzy Southern belle who appears to manipulate the investigation? Barrette Lewis, the prima ballerina with a seductive streak? Timmy, Yonkers, and Skid, the three furtive choirboys? Dr. Griff, the sinister local psychiatrist who freely discusses his patients’ troubles? (“I only reveal secrets during friendship songs!”)
Surely we could rule out Steph, the victim’s niece, a Helpful Henrietta-type who longs to partner with Marcus. But what about all the other shady celebrants in the house at the time of the murder? The sleuth comes up with a tried-and-true gambit: a reenactment of where everyone stood at the precise moment Whitney was slain, leading to—gasp—a surprising twist in the final scenes.
As directed by Scott Schwartz, Marcus’s chaotic interrogations sail along so gaily that the romp’s weaker points—dorky humor and awkwardly integrated ditties—don’t matter much. As the title implies, Murder for Two is mainly about the performers’ virtuosic tag-team spirit. (The show features a tongue-in-cheek book and music by Joe Kinosian, with book and lyrics by Kellen Blair.) Throw in a little audience participation, clever one-liners, and sight gags (like a suitcase full of body parts) and—voilà!—spirited, if bland, amusement ensues.
The second half moves far more fluidly than the first, and a few devices (especially the presence of an unseen character offstage) don’t land as well as they should. But Blumenkrantz and Ryback give relentlessly peppy, thoroughly animated performances, drawing sharp caricatures and timing the farce with showy panache. For me, watching this sprightly caper felt like polishing off a whole plate of ice cream for dinner: a binge on sugar and air, but full of vanilla fun.