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I'm going to start out with a caveat here: I am not a big fan of slapstick. That over-the-top, Harvey Korman/Tim Conway kind of humor, frankly, leaves me cold. If what is happening onstage is so outré that the actors on stage cannot even keep a straight face at their own humor, then I prefer to watch something else. The typical theatergoer, in this regard, falls into two categories: those who appreciate this kind of humor, and those who don't. I fall unabashedly into the second category.
That being said, if that type of humor is your cup of tea, then you have a grand treat ahead of you. North Carolina Theatre has brought in a relatively new musical by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair called Murder for Two. The pair of gents, who between them portray about a dozen people, perform with a great deal of self-confidence and wit.
The premise for Murder for Two is that one actor plays Marcus Moscowicz, a cop who very much wishes to graduate to detective. He is called, along with a more seasoned veteran named Lew (whom we never actually see), to the grand manor of the "Great American Novelist" Arthur Whitley. When Marcus arrives, he discovers that Whitley has been murdered, shot through the forehead. The gun, obviously the murder weapon, has been left beside the body.
He also finds a houseful of suspects. The other actor plays them all. Changes from one to another are split-second, often between two words of text, and this requires a massive amount of memory, practice, and dead-on characterizations for about a dozen different people. The folks who manages this on stage at NCT's Fletcher Opera Theater are of Brandon Lambert, who plays Marcus, and Martin Landry, who plays "the Suspects," or literally everyone else.
Both of these actors have played this show many different times, in both roles. Their obvious familiarity with the script and all its permutations means that the pair is comfortable enough to add massive amounts of schtick to the show. They are both quite skilled at thinking on their feet, so that these add-ons come almost without conscious thought. This makes for what should have been raucous hilarity, and had the audience been into that, the whole house would have been roaring with laughter pretty much non-stop. But – as I am sure the actors were aware opening night – it was fairly obvious that most of the audience was pretty much with me when it comes to slapstick, because we just weren't buying it.
Don't get me wrong, we were not by any means stone-faced. There was plenty of laughter to be had, but it was not washing over these actors in the waves they were expecting, because as the show went on, the schtick got broader and broader.
Landry and Lambert are troopers; they did not let the underwhelming audience response sway them, nor did the tech crew, who had to be right there with the visual laughs, sound cues, and technical schtick that was required to pull this show off. The sight gags were legion, and kept the crew hopping. But, this wasn't moving the audience to the degree that it should have been either.
Murder for Two takes place on a completely bare set. With the exception of the baby grand that dominates center stage, there are no props, no scenery, and no costume changes. With the exception of a one-line description of the setting in the program, everything is left for these two to create on stage. Both Lambert and Landry are on stage constantly. Furthermore, both guys play double-duty: Lambert is also musical director for the show and Landry is the dance captain. And believe me, with the sheer amount of movement required, a dance captain is needed. So these two guys have a huge stake in what happens. Their blood, sweat, and tears are clearly all over this show. It’s a great show, if you like that sort of thing. Apparently, the term "low-brow" that is often applied to this kind of comedy – by those of us who do not appreciate it – applies here in spades, because, I gotta tell ya, folks, those guys were dying up there. It was almost painful to watch. The biggest laugh of the entire night came very near the end, when it became obvious that three people are needed on stage: one to play the piano, one to recite the lines, and one to play the dying individual who has just been poisoned by our killer. Landry went out into the audience, found the swankest, top-drawer lovely he could find, and invited her up on stage. The poor woman, who was at the theater in her favorite LBD (that's Little Black Dress, for those of you who are not fashionistas), was asked literally to lie on the floor to play the dying man while Marcus pawed her into a sitting position to deliver his lines. I sincerely hope that dress was not ruined! The poor woman was a sport about it, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of that home when the lady and her husband arrived back after the show!
Marcus, with the help of Steph Whitney, the dead man's niece (and one of Landry's many crisp characterizations), solves the murder and all is well. But this had to be one of the toughest audiences the pair has ever faced. Despite receiving a standing ovation at the close of the show, I suspect these two were hurting after this production. This level of performance by two Equity actors at the top of their game should have provided much more than they got. I guess there are more people out there like me than I thought.
Murder for Two continues through Sunday, May 5. If sight gags, broad humor, and shtick are just your kind of comedy, give these guys a break and get all your friends and come down to see this show. It'll make these two poor dudes feel better. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
Oh, and one other thing. Both of these fellahs are crackerjack pianists, too. The closing ditty that's played with four hands is sensational!