There’s something about gathering people in a stately home that inspires murder mysteries, from “And Then There Were None” to “Gosford Park.” With a fresh corpse and a passel of suspects, the intricacies are endless. That’s the first draw of Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s current show, “Murder for Two.” The second is that this search for a culprit is all set to music.
And the third is that two men play all the parts –– while also providing musical accompaniment. It’s the ideal setup for zany, high-energy musical comedy, which director Scott Weinstein and his two talented actors deliver flawlessly. Well, almost –– but that secret will be disclosed later.
Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair co-wrote the book, with lyrics by Blair and music by Kinosian. The conflict begins with a murder: famed novelist Arthur Whitney has been killed on arriving home, unaware his wife Dahlia has assembled, for a surprise birthday party, all his best enemies. A young police officer, Marcus Moscowicz, arrives, with his (unseen) partner Lou; and though he’s only holding the fort till the real detective arrives, he can’t resist trying to solve the crime, eager to earn detective status himself.
Anthony Norman plays Marcus, and Noel Carey plays, well, everybody else. They make a charming Mutt and Jeff pair, the shorter, tousled-haired Norman intense and by the book; the taller, lean Carey hilariously versatile as he morphs from one suspect to the next. Among others, he’s snarky as the frustrated drama queen Dahlia in cat’s-eye glasses; sexy as the aloof prima ballerina Barrette, one of Arthur’s lovers; and crotchety and creepily cloying as Dr. Griff, the elderly psychiatrist in a wheelchair.
But even before the action begins, we get some silly stage business –– playing with the overhead light fixtures and stealing audience members’ purses –– that sets the tone. This is going to be an evening of fast-paced vaudevillian nonsense, outrageously hammy acting, and irrepressible sight gags and puns. When it comes to madcap comedy, the more ridiculous, the better –– the audience laughs nonstop.
The setting, by Czerton Lim, is dominated by a huge backdrop of a Psycho mansion on a hill, complete with full moon. The playing area, featuring a grand piano, eventually becomes the drawing room where all assemble. And Dan Ozminkowski’s lighting is timed perfectly for both comic and spooky effects.
Blackouts are expected in murder mysteries; that’s when all the nefarious stuff goes on. One of them on opening night, however, lasted a bit long. When some lights soon came up, the stage remained empty. For a long time. Turns out that the rain (which at first was so light it sounded like part of Eric Backus’ sound design) had developed into a major storm, which caused the blackout.
Rebooting the complicated light-board took a while, though, so eventually Noel Carey came onstage and announced a recap of the storyline to date. He then brilliantly improvised a speedy, crazy summary of every character and plot point we’d just seen. It was a tour de force, mid-show, that delighted the confused audience.
The comedy continued, with both men singing and playing the piano, almost atop one another. Marcus is confounded in his sleuthing by a sparring couple (the irritated husband declares his wife’s the guilty party) and a zealous female grad student, not to mention Dahlia’s showy atop-the-piano confession. Overall, she’s been far more concerned about the disappearance of the ice cream than her husband’s body on the floor.
And what about that group of choir boys come to sing for the birthday festivities? Carey again, on his knees as three different street urchins. (Their caps and other deft costume accessories by Tiffany Howard.)
Everybody has a motive, of course, and the malefactor is never who you’d think. But assigning guilt is not our concern –– we’re here for the guilty pleasure of enjoying as much silliness as these clever actors can serve up.
“Murder for Two,” book and music by Joe Kinosian, book and lyrics by Kellen Blair. With Noel Carey and Anthony Norman. Directed by Scott Weinstein. At the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Auburn, through Sept. 15. Tickets at 315-255-1785 or online at FingerLakesMTF.com.