A Cop Will Get a Killer to Sing (That’s Not a Spoiler)

In one sense, there’s little mystery surrounding the question of who pulled the fatal trigger in the musical “Murder for Two.” Only two actors are in the show, and one plays the police officer investigating the crime. So it doesn’t take a Hercule Poirot to conclude that the culprit is definitely the lanky, bald fellow with popping eyes and pinwheeling limbs.

But that doesn’t really get you any closer to figuring out which character shot the dude oozing blood on the floor of his New England manse. Because the bald guy, the ferociously energetic actor Jeff Blumenkrantz, plays a hefty handful of prime suspects, all of whom had ample cause to wish the novelist Arthur Whitney dead.

Was the killer Dahlia, the deceased’s wife, a Southern belle who resented her husband for ending her glamorous stage career? Or Barrette Lewis, the celebrated ballerina who was seeing him on the sly? Or the psychiatrist Dr. Griff, who seemed to be treating just about everyone in the room at the time of the murder? It couldn’t possibly be a member of that boys’ choir on hand for Arthur’s birthday party, now could it? Then again, they’re a tough little bunch.

Written by Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics), “Murder for Two,” which won a prestigious Jefferson Award in Chicago for best new musical in 2011, is an ingenious miniature musical in the form of a snazzy vaudevillian double act. The authors and the director, Scott Schwartz, deploy minimal stage resources to maximum effect. With just two actors, a piano and a prop or two, the show spins out a curlicued comic mystery story animated by funny, deftly turned songs.

In addition to the intensive acting chores — Brett Ryback, as Officer Marcus Moscowicz, works just as hard as Mr. Blumenkrantz — the actors share the music-making duties. When Mr.

Blumenkrantz steps into the spotlight as one of the suspects, singing an alibi or a tortured back story, Mr. Ryback dives for the piano. When Mr. Ryback takes center stage to untie one of the knots in the plot, Mr. Blumenkrantz works the keyboard with equal finesse. Occasionally they both squeeze onto the piano bench and let their nimble fingers fly up and down the keys in tandem.

Once Marcus starts tangling with the oddly assorted suspects, “Murder for Two” gains elevation, although a tendency toward dopey humor is never entirely vanquished. But if the jokes in the book sometimes wheeze, the performers, remarkably, never do, even as they work up a considerable sweat under the pedal-to-the-floor direction of Mr. Schwartz.


Published November 6, 2013 by THE NEW YORK TIMES