"Murder for Two," a musical whodunit performed cabaret-theater style by two indefatigable actors, is part tag team, part tug of war.
Jeff Blumenkrantz — bald, gangly and boisterously over-the-top — plays all the suspects. Brett Ryback — more of the straight man, though equally suited to the role of the lovable loser getting another chance at redemption — plays would-be detective Officer Marcus.
The men take turns on the piano, accompanying each other when a character trots out one of the show's goofy numbers. Occasionally, a turf battle ensues, but more commonly the fellows amicably share responsibility for providing musical punctuation in a show that is more sketch comedy than traditional book musical.
Written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, "Murder for Two," which had its world premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2011, doesn't have the camp flair of Charles Ludlum's "The Mystery of Irma Vep." But it tries hard — as the flop sweat on Blumenkrantz attests — to match its maniacal energy.
A slightly overstretched divertissement that has turned out to have commercial legs, the show, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, will delight those who find this sort of frolicsome caper ingenious rather than jejune. "Murder for Two" won the Joseph Jefferson Award for best new musical work in Chicago and also had some success off-Broadway, so clearly this is not a minority taste.
Still, one has to be swept away by the zany delirium of it all, and I found myself resisting for two reasons. The characters in this murder mystery are such a mishmash that a theatrical world, even of the spoof variety, isn't convincingly established. And Scott Schwartz's direction doesn't do enough to modulate Blumenkrantz's raucous playing style.
The book, which Kinosian and Blair wrote together, revolves around the question of who killed novelist Arthur Whitney inside his spooky mansion on the night of his surprise birthday party. The suspect list includes Arthur's bitter wife (Blumenkrantz wearing round glasses and adopting a psychotic Southern drawl), a ballerina (Blumenkrantz looking aloof and occasionally elevating a limb) and an unhappily married couple (Blumenkrantz bickering with himself).
A secret-spilling psychiatrist, a student criminologist who instantly falls for Marcus and three tough tykes from a boys' choir — all frenetically caricatured by Blumenkrantz — also figure in the jury-rigged plot. The gimmick is that these weirdos appeared as characters in Arthur's books, but the literary parody is just a pretext for farcical mugging and unbridled horseplay.
The story isn't meant to be a model of narrative refinement. Much of the fun comes from the lunatic challenge of simply performing such convoluted silliness. The actors' delight in these comic X Games is intended to spark our own.
The set by Beowulf Boritt evokes the music hall, a fitting locale for a show that enjoys breaking the fourth wall through conspiratorial winks and the direct involvement of those in the front row. There's also a running gag in which Blumenkrantz berates the audience every time Marcus' cellphone goes off. (Actor and character are more or less interchangeable in these moments.)
The show features serviceable comic ditties, larky tunes that only want to get a rise. Kinosian's music is a bit more insinuating than Blair's occasionally flat-footed lyrics. But the musical highlight for me was when, at the end of the show, Blumenkrantz and Ryback performed a daredevil piano duet, with a mirror showing off their impressive hand coordination.
Here, talent trumped effort, a welcome sight after such exhausting comic labors.
'Murder for Two'
Where: Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Aug. 2.
Tickets: $69 to $74 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454 or http://www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes