Driven by vibrant performances and exceptional design work, Murder for Two’s good-natured musical tale of murder makes it an ideal Halloween treat.
Murder for Two, Book and Music by Joe Kinosian. Book and Lyrics by Kellen Blair. Directed by JC Clementz. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through November 11.
By Erik Nikander
Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Murder for Two is a wild concoction, a typhoon of macabre comedic energy. It’s a murder mystery told in the format of a two-person musical, but whereas other whodunnits depend on intricate logic and clockwork-like plotting, Murder for Two steamrolls over conventions with gleeful anarchy. Yes, some of the show’s story elements are a touch predictable, and a few of the stranger gags don’t quite stick. But driven by vibrant performances and exceptional design work, Murder for Two’s good-natured tale of bloody murder makes it an ideal Halloween treat.
Legendary American novelist Arthur Whitney’s surprise birthday party goes slightly awry when the guest of honor is shot in the head by an unknown killer. Marcus Moscowicz (Martin Landry), a by-the-book cop who desperately wants to be a detective, takes charge of the investigation to nail the murderer. The suspects are many: Whitney’s widow Dahlia (Joe Kinosian), his grad student niece Steph (Joe Kinosian), urbane ballerina Barrette Lewis (Joe Kinosian), grizzled psychiatrist Dr. Griff (Joe Kinosian), and bickering old couple Murray and Barb (take a wild guess). All could have done it! With only a short window of time to investigate before the real detective shows up, Marcus must plunge head-first into a world of criminal lunacy in order to crack the case.
As you may have guessed from the above paragraph, Joe Kinosian has quite a bit to do over the course of Murder for Two. He also wrote the music for the show, and co-wrote the book with Kellen Blair. It would be fair to say that this project is something of a labor of love for Kinosian. This passion certainly shines through in his dedicated, madcap performance, in which he flits with ease from one character to another, giving each of the suspects a unique and easily identifiable persona, using nothing but his physicality, a hat, and a pair of glasses. Watching Kinosian contort his face and voice into each new figure is impressive, particularly when he so wonderfully uses their characterizations to bring the play’s world to life. The actor’s verve is staggering, and he imbues the show with a terrific Agatha-Christie-on-speed vitality.
While his role doesn’t call for Kinosian’s bizarre and frenetic energy, Martin Landry also does an excellent job as Marcus. As the “straight man” stuck in a whirlwind of comedic madness, Landry’s bewilderment reflects that of the audience’s. That isn’t to say his character is a wet blanket by any means. Landry’s performance is more than lively enough to keep up with the play’s hectic pace. Director JC Clementz proves to be an excellent maestro. This is the kind of production that could spiral out of control without a steady hand, but Clementz stages the comedic interplay, as well as the elaborate musical numbers, with judicious clarity.
Despite the show’s entertaining zest, from time to time the book feels a little slapdash. So much is thrown at the audience over a relatively brief space of time that not every joke and character resonates; the wackiness threatens to become somewhat exhausting. Also, some of the script’s more formulaic elements feel stale when compared to the play’s more inventive creative choices. Still, these reservations are minor quibbles. Murder for Two is such good-natured fun, executed with such passion and dedication by Kinosian and Landry, that it’s hard not to be won over by its charms.
One of the play’s most charming qualities is its theatricality. The production is centered, literally and figuratively, around the piano, with the performers taking turns tickling the ivories while the other sings. This stripped-down approach to the musical genre, in addition to the show’s over-the-top slapstick comedy, gives Murder for Two a distinctly vaudevillian feel. The technical work is consistently terrific. David Remedios’s sound design layers sound effects into the action of the play with precise timing, to amusing effect. Regina García’s set is deceptively straightforward, with plenty of little surprises that reveal themselves over the course of the action (plus a big one involving the piano). Aimee Hanyzewski’s lighting work, through its playful manipulation of color and shadow, perfectly fits the play’s exaggerated atmosphere.
Murder for Two is a heightened, ridiculous romp, one that feels as if it could spin off course at any moment. There is nothing subtle here. But the MRT artists deftly keep the chaos on track, often by tapping into the rich history of live musical comedy. The show accomplishes something that many other works of theater neglect: it creates a delightfully hilarious experience that’s tailor-made for the stage.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.