Part Agatha Christie novel and part 1960s Batman, Cincinnati Playhouse’s Murder for Two puts a twist on the classic whodunit with unwavering camp and charming musical numbers.
It investigates the mysterious death of famed novelist Arthur Whitney on the night of his surprise birthday party and features just two actors: Eric Van Tielen as detective Marcus Moscowicz and Eric Shorey as all 11 suspects. The book and music are by Joe Kinosian; Kellen Blair provided song lyrics.
Murder for Two leaps to life with the immensely high energy delivered by the two performers. Van Tielen and Shorey also show their talents on the piano, accompanying one another as they sing songs and play intricate duets that add an extra flair to the production.
In Murder for Two, there is not much time to contemplate the actual murder, as the audience is too busy learning about each character’s story and possible motive while consuming joke after unceasing joke. Even the set gets to play along in the action: Each part of it, as designed by Bill Clarke and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, helps allow for an onstage joke. The revolving door that serves as the main entrance and exit to the stage lends endless physical humor, helping elevate the actors’ delivery. There are lighting cues that become a running joke throughout the evening as characters reference old jokes.
Campy humor takes complete dedication, and Van Tielen and Shorey certainly commit themselves 110 percent to the sheer ridiculousness of their characters and situation. Despite this, the show does take a bit of time to get into — fully immersing oneself into a world as zany as this takes an incredible amount of suspension of disbelief, as well as the ability to sit back and allow yourself to be completely accepting of the silliness.
At times, the unending energy on stage can be exhausting. But as the show progresses, the audience becomes more accustomed to the tone, and thus more willing to play along and enjoy.
The two indefatigable stars sell Murder for Two. As Moscowicz, Van Tielen brings a vulnerable and wide-eyed earnestness to the role that helps bring order to the chaos onstage — he is undeniably the straight man to Shorey’s wild and wide-ranging suspects. With a show that features as many suspicious characters as Murder for Two, but only features one actor to play them all, it can be easy to get lost in the fray. However, Shorey brings such varied voice tones and cadences, such wide-ranging nuances, to each of his characters that the audience never gets confused about which suspect is speaking when during the action.
Director Paul Mason Barnes is careful not to let the high energy of the production fatigue the audience. Barnes allows the actors to take breaks from the play’s chaotic, manic pitch to have softer moments that, while still very silly and thus true to the play’s overall intent, nevertheless offer respite from that comic onslaught. He keeps Murder for Two from going over the top.
Murder for Two isn’t exactly Agatha Christie — it lovingly but intentionally subverts her approach to murder mysteries. In that regard, the better comparison might be the 1960s TV series Batman, which somewhat nods to the suspense of its source material but then tries to knowingly and provocatively upend it.
Murder for Two’s purpose is to have fun and let people have fun watching it. It’s actually a rare thing today that a new show like Murder for Two, which premiered on Broadway in 2013, should seek purely to entertain without any greater agenda. But that makes it a refreshing experience that produces countless laughs.
The show ends with a spectacularly impressive piano duet, in which Van Tielen and Shorey cooperate and compete with each other to deliver outstanding keyboard tricks. It’s in this last moment (after which the audience demanded an encore piano performance) that you can totally embrace Murder for Two and put to rest any misgivings about it being a “guilty pleasure.” There’s no guilt about it — it’s just plain pleasure.
Murder for Two is at Cincinnati Playhouse’s Shelterhouse Theatre through June 10. Tickets/more info: cincyplay.com