Murder, Staged

Murder, Staged

W ith Murder for Two, the crowd is in on it. The performers not only wink and nod at you, both literally and figuratively, but also chastise you and apologize to you, and at one point pull an audience member up on stage to play a corpse.

The clever musical/comedy/whodunnit—playing at Long Wharf Theatre through Sunday as part of a multi-city tour—breaks the fourth wall with glee, though not always on purpose. During last Friday’s show, set in an archetypal mansion shrunk down to a single room, Yale graduate Ian Lowe, anchoring the character list as the earnest aspiring detective Marcus Moscowicz, broke character when the antics of his stage partner, Kyle Branzel, caught Lowe’s funnybone just the right way. The crowd, already struggling to contain its laughter at Branzel’s portrayal of an Irish, jig-dancing fireman, picked up on Lowe’s parallel struggle and laughed all the more, pushing the actor’s quivering, ready-to-burst face another shade redder.

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It was an endearing human moment amidst a superhuman display. Murder’s performers act, of course, but they also sing and play the piano, and they do it well for 95 busy minutes. There are so many lines to deliver and so many songs to perform and so many marks to hit and only two people to do it. One of them, Branzel, plays something like 13 characters, switching personas and accents and gaits and other mannerisms—and sometimes wardrobe details—at a split-second’s notice, showing only occasional signs of fatigue. When you in the audience have a hard time remembering which pants pocket has your car keys, you can’t help but marvel at the feat playing out before you.

However little of it there is, there’s more gasping for breath on stage than there is gasping at plot turns from the crowd. This is a quick-witted comedy, not a self-serious noir, signaled from the outset by a light and hammy piano duel. Accordingly, the audience Friday night seemed less worried about the destination than the ride. Then again, that may have been a product of the fact that you really have to pay close attention to keep up with Branzel’s character changes and make sense of the dialogue in the moment, let alone of the broader tale that’s unfolding.

If you are the type to twist and turn trying to forecast the twists and turns, you’ll find it tough going. In the opening spoken lines of Murder for Two, the soon-to-be-murdered Arthur Whitney is described as “everybody’s favorite local patriarch.” Like so many other assertions leveled by the characters in this musical, it’s not entirely true, and maybe quite a bit ironic, and the extent to which that particular claim is false is made almost immediately clear.

Trying to pick the lies from the truths in such a context is futile. This isn’t a logic puzzle so much as a jigsaw puzzle without a box top. Ordered in the vein of many classic whodunnits—a tradition it also skewers—Murder first scatters a bunch of lathed pieces across a table, or maybe a piano lid. But unlike a jigsaw puzzle, you can’t quite tell what’s materializing even by the 90% mark.

After the 100% mark, as the audience filtered out of Long Wharf’s C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, a cascade of words—one word in particular—flowed from theater-goers who couldn’t quite believe the theatrics they’d just witnessed. “Amazing.” “Amazing!” “Amazing,” they said, and well, it was.

Murder for Two at Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Evening and matinee showtimes through Sunday, August 30.
(203) 787-4282
www.longwharf.org/murder-two

Written by Dan Mims. Photo, depicting Ian Lowe (background) and Kyle Branzel (fore), by Jim Cox.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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