Two actors, more than a dozen characters, one piano, a few simple props, and a whole lot of zaniness have made MURDER FOR TWO, by Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics), a popular award-winning hit since its world premiere in Chicago in 2011. The satire of Agatha-Christie-style whodunits, mixed with nods to the board game Clue and silly spoofs of Broadway musicals and cabaret-style song and dance, has now taken the stage at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. Timing is everything in this 90-minute madcap whirlwind, and director Scott Schwartz and his two-man cast maintain the non-stop pace and rapid-fire delivery that the show demands, with the energetic actors never once stepping on each other’s lines or toes.
Novelist Arthur Whitney has been killed upon entering his own surprise birthday party, and it’s up to investigating Officer Marcus (Ian Lowe) to question the array of eccentric guests (all of The Suspects are played with over-the-top relish by Kyle Branzel) at the victim’s spooky mansion, so that he can prove his sleuthing skills, solve the case, and be promoted to Detective. Was it the writer’s scorned wife (Branzel in black-rimmed glasses, speaking with a Southern drawl, and affecting a limp from hip surgery)? The prima ballerina (the long-limbed Branzel striking balletic poses and proffering dramatic self-incriminating statements) with whom Whitney had a dalliance? The bickering couple from New York (Branzel arguing back and forth with himself, as Murray points to his wife Barb as the perpetrator of the crime–“It was her!”)? Or one of the many other suspicious personae Branzel portrays with exaggerated peculiarities and unabashed goofiness (his River-Dancing Irishman, who suddenly appears out of nowhere, is a highlight of the show)? And, aside from the murder, who stole the ice cream that was to be served at the party?
Both Branzel and Lowe (who departs on June 21, to be replaced by Brandon Lambert beginning on June 23) clearly enjoy performing their roles, engaging in mock battles over the piano, belting out dopey ditties, and directly addressing and involving the audience in their ridiculous caper. Their enthusiasm is supported by an effectively dark scenic design (Beowulf Boritt), kooky choreography (Wendy Seyb), and colorful lighting (Jason Lyons) synchronized with their live piano solos and duets. Although the show’s book and lyrics are often less than hilarious and the farcical style of acting is intentionally laden with histrionics and mugging, if you’re in the mood for an hour-and-a-half of escapist entertainment filled with theatrical self-referencing, you’ll find MURDER FOR TWO a killer of a comedy. [Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.] June 6-28, 2015; www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.