There are lots of dynamic duos—Batman and Robin, peanut butter and jelly, Italian beef and fries. Now there’s murder and dancing. Murder for Two is a horse of a different color for the Marriott Theatre—there’s no giant cast, no high production-value numbers, no pit orchestra, and no real name recognition for the show itself. Instead, there are just two cast members, Noel Carey and Jason Grimm, and an immensely clever but demanding book and lyrics by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair in which 13 people are played by 2. Originally produced in New York City and debuting in 2011 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, there’s really no room for error or lack of charisma when it comes to this 90-minute ridiculous dinner party mystery come to life. Luckily, the casting was pitch-perfect and Carey and Grimm make this show seem like it was written for them specifically, making the 90-minute murder mystery a ridiculous, hilarious ride we were thinking about long after the final reveal.
Noel Carey plays the part of Marcus Moscowicz, the local cop longing to be a detective who’s going to wrap up the terrible murder of a famous local author and earn his stripes, so to speak. Meanwhile, Jason Grimm plays the part of…literally everyone else. The total character count for Grimm is an even dozen, and then there’s the dancing, singing and piano playing duties he shares with Carey to consider. It’s a tall order, but when done successfully, as it was by these two, it’s an amazingly good time. Billed as a vaudeville style show, it’s clear even before the play starts that there’s going to be little care taken to keep the fourth wall intact, and Carey and Grimm did a great job loosening up the audience with some goofy slapstick comedy prior to stepping into their roles.
You can’t have a murder mystery without murder, and Grimm is both the curmudgeonly old author who takes a bullet to the forehead and his Blanche-esque southern belle bride Dahlia who was attempting to throw her husband a surprise party. He’s also the exotic ballet dancer, the loose-lipped therapist, the boys’ choir, Lou, Marcus’ silent-type partner, and obnoxiously chipper and determined Steph, the author’s niece who’s studying criminal justice. There are a few others, of course, and we’re introduced to them in short order, with Grimm scrambling to fill new seats and voice new people all the while singing and dancing.
The situation immediately deteriorates as Moscowitz stumbles over the body, fumbles anxiously and doesn’t exactly disclose that he’s not the detective on the scene. Soon, he’s overwhelmed by Dahlia, my absolute favorite of Grimm’s characters. She is perfectly polite, delightfully deranged, and obsessed with the acting career she gave up to become a housewife, even as she’s trying to direct the action of the investigation as she would the party.
Everything was pushed along and amplified with the energetic piano performances by both Grimm and Carey. Either one could hold his own vocally and musically but both together are a real treat. As to the meat of the acting, Noel is a perfectly lovely surprise, bringing a whole lot of laughs to the table as hapless, clueless, yearning Moscowitz. He so desperately wants control of the increasingly ridiculous situation but can hardly control himself, and even he has his own dark secrets to protect. Carey has a knack for this sort of fumbly, funny almost Jimmy Stewart sort of guy, and makes him a sympathetic character you’re rooting for even when he’s totally gone off the rails.
Meanwhile, Grimm’s acting chops are out of this world, as he jumps from character to character with ease, giving each role a different physicality, voice and even different sets of expressions. Though they’re all caricatures, they’re never simply that, played with nuance and well-rounded enough not to come up empty. Another of our favorites in his deck of 12 was Steph, the overachieving, overenthusiastic niece who is determined to be Marcus’ new partner. She’s fast talking, sharp-witted and absolutely obnoxious as played by Grimm, a constant thorn in Marcus’ side. Still, one of the best examples of Grimm’s range and talent came with a duet he played with himself as Barb and Murray, a warring elderly couple that are among the murder suspects. He’s playing, he’s singing, he’s at once a grumpy old man trying to frame his wife for murder and a shrill old shrew attempting to discredit him and it is magical.
There’s not much in the formula of this silly murder mystery that you haven’t seen elsewhere, but the way the story’s told makes it truly special. Marriott did a good job of incorporating the theater-in-the-round into the whole goofy enchilada, by making a rotating stage that was mainly used to comedic effect whenever anyone wanted to shine the light on someone else. The set was simple but easily conveyed a mansion up on a hill perfect for such a dastardly crime, and simple effects, like the cast’s use of flashlights to simulate oncoming headlights, were quite effective.
Even though there are moments where you think you’ve figured out whodunit, Murder for Two keeps manages to twist and turn enough to keep genre fans guessing, though in the end, it’s more the comedy than the mystery that keeps you coming back. The energy never seems to falter, and absurdity heaps on absurdity til the final moments of the show. Each of the party-guest suspects has their own ridiculous quirks, muddying the waters for a “detective” who’s barely hanging on until that big final reveal.
To be honest, it matters little who actually “done it” when it all comes down to it, because the ride you take to get to that end is so much fun. Kinosian and Blair don’t rely too heavily on any one sort of joke, incorporating everything from stupid puns and slapstick to slow-burn jokes and running gags to get a laugh from just about anyone, and with a duo as capable as Jason Grimm and Noel Carey, it’d be hard not to expect most to enjoy it. Murder for Two at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire will run through August 26th. Tickets range in price from $50 to $60 and you can find out more information about the show or purchase tickets by clicking here.