Some seasons ago, the Roundabout Theatre Company brought us a British import of a stage adaptation called The 39 Steps, which used the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1935 as its source. The play made literal use of almost the entire screenplay which was an achievement, for it told a story that took us all over England.
In it, one Richard Hannay is a Canadian visitor to England. At the end of a show in a music hall, he meets Anabella Smith, who is running away from secret agents. He agrees to hide her in his flat, but in the night she is murdered. Fearing he might be murdered, he goes on the run. As he continues his flight he becomes attached to a woman (literally; at one point they are handcuffed to each other) and their journey takes them all over the country. The play adaptation includes virtually every scene in the film including those that happen on a moving train, and in difficult to stage locations. The production concept of the play is to use only 4 actors. Richard Hannay is played by one actor, the other three play everyone else, and there are dozens of people in this intriguing murder mystery.
Now here we have Murder for Two, a musical with book and music by Joe Kinosian and book and lyrics by Kellen Blair. Under Scott Schwartz’s nimble direction, it too had a small start at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre where it had fine notices, and it received the Joseph Jefferson Award recognizing it as Best New Musical following its record breaking run there.It went on to a sold out run at Second Stage’s Uptown venue. Now a consortium of producers have brought it to us off Broadway at the labyrinth called New World Stages in New York, where once again it has received, for the most part, excellent notices. I give you all this background because I was somewhat stunned to find myself only very tentatively amused by it in this incarnation.
Jeff Blumenkrantz, who plays “everyone else” and Brett Ryback, who plays Marcus, a frustrated cop who happens to be the first to arrive on the scene after Arthur Whitney, a well known writer is shot in the head at a party in his own New England mansion, which was to be a birthday celebration for him. While waiting for the real detective to arrive, Marcus plunges ahead with the investigation, convincing the many guests that he is indeed the man in charge. What follows is a vaudevillian mystery musical, now a vaudevillian double act, for the cast includes just two actors and a piano.
We first meet Arthur Whitney as he enters his own home, to be surprised by a houseful of family and friends. His surprise is that he barely gets to center stage before he meets his maker. As the lights were all out, we have no idea which guest killed him. All of them have good cause to want Arthur dead. They include his wife Dahlia, his lover Barette, his psychiatrist Dr. Griff, any one of the boys in the choir hired for his birthday bash, and many more.
The show offers a series of pastiche songs written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair. Both were wildly heralded by press and public in Chicago, which led to another success at 2nd Stage Uptown. In New York, Brett Ryback plays Marcus, the frustrated cop, and Jeff Blumenkrantz gives us Dahlia in huge eyeglass frames, diva Barrette dancing up a storm to get Marcus off her track, and some of the boy-choir lads who claim to “have seen a lot woise” than a murder. Blumenkrantz also plays everyone else at the gathering.
I like silliness when it’s in the right hands. I laughed out loud through most of One Man, Two Guvners last season, I was so intrigued with the artistry in The 39 Steps that I saw it twice, I go all the way back to Jose Ferrer in Charley’s Aunt and Ray Bolger in its musical offspring Where’s Charley? so I know I can let loose when some inspired clowning is going on.
But I found this one missing the mark for the most part. Mr. Ryback is an appealing and energetic actor, but his attack was, to me, more startling than rib tickling. And Mr. Blumenkrantz, whose credits both onstage and in TV are respectable and indicate he never lacks for work, does know about split second timing, but as an instant characterizer, he just seemed to me to be working too hard. Huge takes with bulging eyeballs, wild body contortions, grotesque contortions of his lips, some of which were indeed funny, but on the whole I mostly remember Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders playing dozens of eccentric characters, sometimes two at a time in The 39 Steps, and keeping me in stitches throughout, which explains why the play had a staggering 711 performance run in several Broadway theatres.
Messrs. Blumenkrantz and Ryback came into their own when they both sat down at the piano in one scene and knocked us all out with their dexterity, their invention, their total wackiness. As this happened deep into the 90 minutes of mirth, it sent the crowd out into the night in a jolly mood. They were not so with it during the first half hour but by the end most were seemingly ecstatic and behaved as though they’d just seen the town’s laff riot. I, alas, had merely a smile on my face, and by the time I got home, the evening was just a pleasant faded memory.
Murder for Two is onstage now at New World Statges, 340 West 50th Street (between 8th and 9th), NYC.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.