NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Being a murder mystery buff, not to mention a lover of musicals, "Murder for Two" seemed like a perfect combination of all the best ingredients stirred in together. Alas, the promise exceeded the execution.
The problem with a two-character play with multiple personalities is that it’s really difficult to pull off. Not only do you need split-second timing, but you need a plot that can help you clearly delineate the characters. This rarely works on the stage, although playwrights and companies keep trying.
The best example I’ve seen was a Washington, DC production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep." Here, the multi-talented Charles Ludlam was able to impersonate a host of characters (granted, with costumes and wigs.) But the important point is that the audience could identify with a character and understand how that person fit into the overall plot. Of course "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder" on Broadway also featured one man in many parts, but beautifully abetted by costumes, lighting and solid acting.
Other attempts have been made, such as "The 39 Steps," a stage version of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Once again, the decision was made to more or less follow the plot, but have two or three actors assume multiple roles. But the tension and mystery of the story was totally lost. Last year McCarter Theatre in Princeton tried the same thing with "Baskerville," allowing actors to assume several identities, but ultimately making a mish mash of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." In the end, it appears to be nothing more than a gimmick (and of course saves on hiring more actors.)
The point of all this is that these multiple personality acts are easier said than done. In "Murder for Two," Ian Lowe plays Marcus, a detective who has arrived at a murder scene to decipher the true suspect in the death of a famous author. The man’s wife appears to be the prime suspect, but there is also a ballerina, a thug and a boys’ choir that has some strange characters.
Joe Kinosian, who also wrote the book and lyrics for the show, plays all the suspects. So every time he comes in and out of a door frame, he’s someone else. Kellen Blair wrote the book and lyrics (and the lyrics are quite catchy.)
There are some engaging moments, especially when the two actors play the grand piano on stage and try all sorts of effects and contortions. But that isn’t enough to hold this plot together. What is the personality behind the author’s wife? Why does she want to murder him? What is the role of the boys’ choir and why are they on stage for several periods of time? (They’re all played by Kinosian, who is on his knees with a baseball cap.)
Scott Schwartz has directed the play, but most of it is out of his hands. With the lead played by the composer, it’s a little hard to tone him down. In some scenes, I had the sense that the actors had lost track of the plot lines and were struggling to get back on track. That didn’t help the trajectory of the play. A bare stage, with brick wall, ghost light, grand piano and a few props makes up the set. Scenic design is by Beowulf Boritt and lighting by Jason Lyons. Sound effects by Jill BC Du Boff help.
It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Some in the audience seemed to relish the production, especially when an audience member was dragged on stage for a death scene. A few people left early and there is no intermission in this 90-minute plus production. But if you like that kind of two-dimensional farce, this may be the play for you."Murder for Two" continues at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Oct. 25. For tickets call 732-246-7717 or visit GSPonline.org.