It may take two to tango, or in the words of Louisa May Alcott, two flints to make a fire. It takes two to make a quarrel and two wings to fly, in other notable quotes. Thoreau said that it takes two to speak the truth, one to speak and another to hear. And Chinese leader Jiang Zemin is quoted saying “it takes two hands to clap,”
The sounds of much more than just two hands clapping, along with plenty of laughter, are filling New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through August 30, as the national tour of “Murder for Two” brings the acclaimed off-Broadway success by Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) to local audiences for an end-of-summer treat, folowing its opening on August 20.
“Murder for Two” is perhaps one of zaniest contemporary farces, with music, that one will encounter. A one act wonder for two actor-musicians, the plot tells of a young police officer’s Marcus Moscowitz’s informal investigation into the murder of wealthy Arthur Whitney as he arrives home for a surprise birthday party being thrown by his self-obsessed wife, Dahlia, who seems more concerned about who made off with the party’s ice cream. There’s a mansion-full of suspects, including a prima ballerina who will dance a plie at a moment’s notice, a psychiatrist with a notebook full of patient secrets, and a gaggle of errant juveniles brought in to serenade the guest of honor.
The gimmick is that one actor, in this case Ian Lowe, plays the short but determined policeman anxious to be promoted to full detective, and the tall lanky Kyle Branzel plays all of the suspects, with both taking turns at the piano, except when they both are playing while trying to push the other one off the piano bench. The result, once the audience comprehends how the show will work, is non-stop giddiness, with the humor in the music and lyrics matching the delectable nonsense of the mystery plot.
Of course much of the charm of the evening is due to Branzel’s ability to jump in and out of different characters with split-second timing and no substantial change of costume. He accomplishes in a variety of ways, including varying his voice in remarkably distinct ways, arching his eyebrows, hunching his shoulders or donning a pair of glasses or a baseball cap. His characters tend to be slightly over the top, as they should be, for this satiric take on the conventions of an old fashioned murder mystery.
In many ways, Lowe’s Moscowitz is the audience’s point of entry into the musical, as he shares his suspicions and outlines his theories while attempting to interrogate the genially uncooperative suspects, while developing an attraction to Steff (also played by Branzel), the niece of the now widowed Dahlia, who yearns to be a sort of Miss Marple herself. Lowe can be quite funny as he strives to keep up with the antics of the suspects and witnesses while trying to maintain order until the official detective arrives. Moscowitz is also engaged in an ongoing monologue with his silent partner, Lou, who remains outside guarding the entrance.
Scott Schwartz repeats his off-Broadway direction, keeping the break-neck plotting clear to the audience while mining the characters and the songs for as much humor as possible. One never quite knows when a character will break into song, or who else will join in, or actually precisely why they are singing in the midst of a murder investigation, but who cares? As long as you’re having fun, you’ll forgive almost anything.
The design team has done a tremendous job of hinting with just minimal detail the various settings within the mansion. Beowulf Borritt’s set design is placed within a brick-lined proscenium placed toward the back of the Long Wharf’s thrust stage, with two doors on either side, suggesting the Edwardian detail of the estate. A large piano dominates the interior of the proscenium, which also depicts a typical back wall of a theater, lined with various nefarious props and electrical equipment that can be called into service throughout the 90-minute one-act performance. Jill BC DuBoff’s outstanding sound design incorporates creaking doors, clinking glasses and an assortment of carefully scheduled noises, while Jason Lyons’ lighting allows for the occasional ill-timed blackout or focus on a specific conversation. Andrea Lauer dressed the two actors in English-style street clothes that somehow accommodate the intense physical activity required of the two roles.
Wendy Seyb is credited with choreography, which must include the two actors’ various antics climbing over, under and around furniture and general movement around the stage which indeed seems cleverly planned. Both Branzel and Lowe do get a workout over the course of the show, as the case gets more frantic and some rather amusing revelations about various characters come to pass. Plus each actor reveals an exceptional talent as a pianist, as one or the other unobtrusively runs over to the piano to provide necessary accompaniment for the next song.
What is equally impressive is their ability to get the audience caught up in the story. Not only are we curious about who the culprit really is, but we also are invested in the romantic developments between Moscowitz and Steff, the latter of whom does like to one-up the fledging detective from time to time, as well as wishing for the young officer to succeed so that he can be promoted.
Creators Kinosian and Blair, along with performers Branzel and Lowe, easily demonstrate how it takes two to devise a show that is able to delight and entertain as much as “Murder for Two” is able to do. The show’s cleverness and audacity elevates the evening to much more than just a trifle of a comedy—there is considerable impressive method to the delicious madness on the stage.
For information and tickets, contact the Long Wharf box office at 203.787.4282 or visit the theater’s website at www.longwharf.org.