“Murder for Two” is many things at once.
Center Repertory Company’s season opener at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts is a farcical murder mystery in which only two people play many roles — or rather one actor plays the detective while the other one plays everybody else. It’s also a musical, with music by Joe Kinosian and lyrics by Kellen Blair and a book by both, and both performers switch off on the piano or sometimes play it together.
It’s a classic drawing room mystery setup. There’s a shot in the dark with a whole lot of suspects in the room and a couple of policemen conveniently nearby, and one of the cops hopes to make detective by solving the murder before the real police detective arrives.
Eric Van Tielen is placidly pleasant as Officer Marcus Moscowicz,
a protocol-obsessed small-town cop haunted by a troubled past. Eric Shorey is terrifically animated and versatile as everybody else the colorful array of suspects, including the dead man’s conspicuously unmournful widow craving the spotlight, a seductive femme fatale prima ballerina, a squabbling older couple, a weirdly clingy psychiatrist with boundary issues, an overenthusiastic college student who wants to help solve the case and a few boisterous members of a boys’ choir.
The other policeman, who’s explicitly not Marcus’ partner because he has commitment issues, is played by no one at all, just providing an invisible sounding board for characters to soliloquize to so that we can hear what they’re thinking.
There are no costume changes aside from an occasional hat or pair of glasses. Both gents are simply costumed by Tracy Dorman in nice suits, with Shorey in a flashier vest and bowtie befitting the eccentricity and poshness of his various characters.
There’s a fun running gag about the crowd of people gathered in the room that Marcus hasn’t noticed, because of course they’re all played by one person. From time to time Marcus approaches Shorey thinking he’s talking to one person only to have him leap into life as somebody else altogether.
The dead man is a famous novelist whose books all have amusingly straightforward, on-the-nose titles, and everyone has possible reasons for resenting the way he mined their secrets for material.
The fact that the whole endeavor is a play is never far from the surface. Bill Clarke’s eye-catching set evokes an abandoned theater, with a loose-hanging red curtain and a whole lot of switches. The mansion set itself unfolds from a large crate. When the performers enter they make themselves busy moving props around, and the characters frequently signal to cue Lonnie Rafael’s Alcaraz’ lights or Jeff Mockus’ sound design.
There are a few things that don’t quite click. Although the central couple’s niece Steph is a grad student, she’s played by Shorey with such a tiny voice and childlike demureness that it’s a bit jarring when she becomes a romantic interest.
It’s a very cozy murder mystery with very low stakes dramatically. Marcus cares more about his chance to make detective than anyone cares about the dead person or who might be the murderer.
Though Ashland-based director Paul Mason Barnes’ staging is entertainingly animated, it takes a while to warm up or elicit much in the way of laughs. It certainly gets there, though. Shorey’s depiction of the vampy ballerina is a scream, especially her flamboyantly self-incriminating musical number.
Both performers are talented pianists, and watching them trade off or play around each other on the instrument is a lot of fun.
As musical comedies go it might not exactly slay you, but it’s certainly an enjoyable way to kill some time.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘MURDER FOR TWO’
By Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, presented by Center Repertory Company
Through: Oct. 6
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Running time: Two hours, one intermission
Tickets: $39-$90; 925-943-7469, www.centerrep.org