It’s just two guys with a piano and a wacky tale to tell. But it sure is a lot of fun.
Murder for Two, the comedy with music and mayhem that opened Stage West’s 38th season on Saturday, spins out like an old radio show. There is a murder, a long list of likely suspects, a determined cop and an omnipresent possibility of romance in this manic farce. So nothing new there. But while this romp’s plot may have a familiar ring, the way it unfolds is a bit different.
The play opens with two actors entering what looks like the backstage area of a theater. They are delighted to find a piano waiting for them there and, without any setup or explanation, launch into their story.
And what a goofy mess it is. The murder victim, novelist Arthur Whitney (portrayed by an outline on the floor), has been done in by a person or persons unknown, and everyone in his immediate circle has a reason or two to be guilty. Whitney’s wife does not seem to be at all bothered by his demise, his psychiatrist does not come across like a man who can be trusted, the neighbor couple hates him and he may have been carrying on with the ballerina. An earnest police officer, Marcus (Mark Schenfisch), stumbles into this chaos, and immediately seizes upon the situation as a catapult to the detective rank he so desperately desires.
But, all of the suspects (Teddy Warren), including the boys choir, prove to be a tough bunch of nuts to crack.
You read that right: Warren plays all of the suspects, male and female, with just a few bits of costuming and a slew of over-the-top characterizations.
So that is the gimmick in this show created by Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics), and directed by Lindy Heath Davis. That trick is adroitly executed by Stage West first-timers Schenfisch and Warren. They build their characters, play the piano (often in four-hand arrangements) and sing without seeming to take a single breath over the show’s two-hour span. They are nothing short of amazing.
Warren does an especially good job of delineating his diverse characters. He and Schenfisch play off one another expertly. . Both actors tickle the ivories like they have had lessons beat into them since age two. While neither has that strong a voice, they share such a great sense of phrasing and timing that it doesn’t matter.
The criticisms that might be leveled against this show are that is it extremely slight (don’t be surprised if you have forgotten most of it by the time you reach the lobby) and it has a sort of odd, time-traveling look and feel. The setting is supposed to be the present (cell phones are employed), but the costuming, by Johna Sewell, and the musical styles have a decidedly 1930s-1940s vibe. And there are some things you might expect to be revealed that are not.
But that is just another way to say this is a unique show. It won’t make you a bit smarter, but it will provide you with a strong dose of silliness to brighten the holiday season.