Murder for Two

Mirthful Birthday Murder

Review of Murder for Two, Playhouse on Park

In Murder for Two, playing through this weekend at Playhouse on Park, the laughs come from the improbable situation, exploited as much for its silliness as for its show-biz potential: his own murder as a birthday surprise for Arthur Whitney, a murder novelist, and a cop, with an unseen partner, Lou, who has to play detective among a roomful of suspects. One actor (Trevor Dorner) plays all the suspects, the other (John Grieco) plays the policeman, Marcus Moscowicz. Sent in to vamp by the local police department, Marcus wants to solve the crime before the real detective gets there, hoping to make detective himself.

Together and separately, Dorner and Grieco play the piano as both a prop and accompaniment, keeping up vaudevillian repartee and trading off gags. Both actors have experience playing the irrepressible Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet and their showmanship at the piano is a great asset of the show here.

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

The set by scenic designer David Lewis is a sprawling room crammed with books and the kind of genteel trappings common in detective novels. An alcove up a few steps from the stage floor will be an ideal spot for certain dramatic and musical moments—not least a somewhat gratuitous film noir death from the creepy backstory of our haunted flatfoot.

Anyone willing to show up for the novelist’s birthday has already been used by the voracious writer as material for one of his score-settling fictions. And that means anyone could be guilty of the murder, not least because one of the suspects present, the gruff psychiatrist Dr. Griff, has seen pretty much the entire town professionally—including Marcus—and so apprised the author to the sorts of things the others told in confidence. Why was he so close to Whitney? Well, let Griff enlighten us with a song about the importance of friendship . . .

One of the features of the show that lands best is the notion that everyone present is a kind of performer—whether in the past or in the making—each ready for a big number. It might be ditzy Southern belle Dahlia—who, she says, was forced to give up her successful stage career after marriage—waiting for her showstopper, or her niece, Steph, an eager criminologist in training, wanting to pant musically about being smitten with Marcus. The songs can be witty, are always jaunty, and help to make the most of the whirligig of Dorner’s performance as he launches into one improbable Broadway-style number after another. And there’s good fun with an audience member—as the victim of a second murder—that capitalizes on the close-to-the-action setup of Playhouse on Park.

Not all the characters are as keenly drawn as we might hope—a sparring couple are thinly characterized and their put-downs tend to fall flat—and making the aloof ballerina, Ms. Lewis, a love interest for Marcus feels very much a sitcom element. In fact, the Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (also music and lyrics respectively)—a Drama Desk nominee in 2014—tends to mix together the tropes of detective fiction, musicals, sitcoms, cartoons, and vaudeville without worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. A good example of the verbal style on show here are the titles of Whitney’s books, which are so literal as to be clues in themselves, almost. The one he was working on at his death, All of Them Bananas, might point easily to the entire cast, including three members of a boys’ choir (whom Dorner enacts on his knees—and then proceeds to Charleston!).

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

Not quite as sharp as 39 Steps, where the Hitchcockian elements help with suspense, nor as inspired as A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, which won the Drama Desk’s Award for Best Book in 2014, Murder for Two makes the most of its featured players’ talents. Grieco presents a very earnest and unassuming Marcus, his frequent references to detective protocol a good ongoing gag, and Dorner is as manic as necessary, though the introduction of each new character might work better if not off to the side on a thrust stage. Directed by Kyle Metzger, the play isn’t always as slapdash and swift as it needs to be. All in all, every bit of the show is food for whipped-up fun, a kind of murder meringue, without much flavor for thought, so it can’t afford to less us ruminate.


Murder for Two
Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair
Music by Joe Kinosian, Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Kyle Metzger

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Chris Bell; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master: Judi Manfre

Cast: Trevor Dorner, John Grieco

Playhouse on Park
January 16-February 3, 2019

The Singing Detective . . . and Suspects

Review of Murder for Two at Long Wharf Theatre

The key insight underlying Murder for Two, now playing at Long Wharf Main Stage in a touring production, is that the characters in your typical whodunit are generally a cast of caricatures, only present to fill out the list of suspects. In this high energy musical production, imbued with the spirit of rapid-fire vaudevillian schtick, one actor (Kyle Branzel) plays all the suspects and the other (Ian Lowe) plays Marcus, a cop intent on crime scene protocol as a means to move up the ladder to detective. The murder of famous novelist Arthur Whitney, at a surprise birthday party in his home, is the occasion for Marcus to make the most of his nascent detective chops.

Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

The suspects include Dahlia, Whitney’s wife, and Dr. Griff, the local psychiatrist, who, it turns out, was not only Whitney’s confidante but also saw, professionally, pretty much everyone at the party, not to mention Marcus himself, still haunted by an on-the-job romance that went awry. There’s also a ballet star Whitney was sweet on, a bickering couple—the husband believes his wife is the culprit in every killing—Whitney’s niece Steph (a would-be criminology student), three members of a boy’s choir, and, rewardingly silly, an Irish fireman with his hose. The key plot point is that all the guests appeared as characters in Whitney’s books: the motive of any one of them might be the shame or anger his portrayal inspired. And what about All Them Bananas, the book Whitney was preparing for publication at the time of his death?

Some of the parts—signaled by Branzel mostly by body language and voice—come off better than others and the ones that don’t—the couple, for instance—bring down the fun a notch. Scott Schwartz’s direction aims for speed over clarity and the scripting of what each suspect adds to the mystery could be better worked-out, since not all are funny enough to justify their presence for the sake of comedy. Best in that light is Mrs. Whitney, a southern belle with wild mood swings, the imperious ballet dancer, Ms. Lewis—Branzel’s high split each time he turns into her is a nice grace note—and the endearing and inquisitive Steph, dotingly eager to become Marcus’s new partner. Meanwhile, the shrink demands to sing a song about friendship and Mrs. Whitney wants to regale us with her big number from back when she walked the boards. Which is where the music comes in.

Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

A piano is the main prop here, as Branzel and Lowe keep up spirited musical patter to match the scripted shenanigans. Sometimes one accompanies the other’s vocal, sometimes they engage in comic oneupmanship at the keys. The songs tend to be music hall versions of Broadway numbers, which means they give us character notes—not always as clever as we might like—so we know something about the different suspects. Marcus’s ditty about crime scenes takes its tone from Gilbert and Sullivan, while Steph’s big number, “He Needs a Partner,” throbs with an ingenue’s musical pining. Both Branzel and Lowe are readily likeable and make the most of the best the show—written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair—has to offer. It helps greatly that Branzel is so good at playing ditzy females. He grabs the role as if he were born to play it, making the most of his long legs, lanky frame, and ability to contort Jerry Lewis-style and play dumbshow à la Harpo.

Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

If you’re not the type to seek out Lewis and Martin or the Marx Brothers in re-runs on cable or in your Netflix cue, there’s still something to be said for watching physical and musical comedy performed live and, as it were, in your face. Murder for Two proffers a kind of mash-up that should have great audience appeal—and seems to, given the show's tours and awards—of the murder mystery and the musical, as well as the small cast/many characters turn of crowd-pleasers like The Mystery of Irma Vep and The 39 Steps.

The illusion of setting is pretty much dispensed with in Murder, given the piano, the proscenium with doors for other spaces, and the actors’ attention to the audience—to demand applause, scold for ringing phones, and entreat a volunteer to play a corpse. There’s a zany “anything for a laugh” quality to the show—including visual references to the board game Clue and the cartoon Scooby-Doo—that adds surprises to help distract from the show’s static elements. In the end, it’s all about performance, and with the irrepressibly manic Kyle Branzel as the suspects and Ian Lowe, an able abettor as straight man and ambitious if questionable sleuth, Murder for Two keeps the ball rolling, though sometimes giving us the feeling that we’ve been treated to a few too many parlor tricks.


Second Stage Theatre presents
Murder for Two, a New Musical Comedy
Book and Music by Joe Kinosian
Book and Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Starring Kyle Branzel and Ian Lowe

Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: Andrea Lauer; Lighting Design: Jason Lyons; Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff; Music Director: David Caldwell; Choreographer: Wendy Seyb; Casting: Calleri Casting; Production Stage Manager: Katrina Olson; Production Supervisor: Production Core; Associate Producer: Tom Casserly

Long Wharf Theatre Mainstage
August 19-30, 2015