Murder for Two, now playing at the Garner Galleria, is a small musical but a dizzying one, spinning through ninety minutes with two actors and a piano — although it has far more than two characters, as well as clever, tuneful songs and fun, inspired patter from creators Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair.
Dahlia Whitney has assembled an assortment of friends and acquaintances for a birthday party for her husband, famed novelist Charles Whitney. Charles has incorporated all of these people into one or another of his many novels, spilling their secrets with the aid of therapist Dr. Griff, whose idea of confidentiality involves issuing a brief mea culpa before he gossips, earning almost universal enmity. Everyone is there in the semi-dark preparing to yell “Surprise!” at the show’s beginning, but when the lights finally come up, Charles is found lying on the floor with a bullet wound to his head. Or perhaps he’s been knifed. It’s confusing, but someone at some point mentions a knife. Enter Officer Marcus Moscowicz, a youthful, ambitious soul who longs to be promoted to detective. Since it will take a while for the actual detective on the case to arrive, Marcus seizes the opportunity to practice his detection skills. There are several suspects for him to practice on: a trio of little thugs from a boys’ choir, a soignée ballerina named Barrette Lewis, Dahlia herself, Dr. Griff, a neighbor couple and Steph, a young girl studying criminology, who is worshipful of Marcus, chatty, overly helpful — and thrilled down to her toes to find herself involved in an actual murder.
Marcus is played by Noel Carey, while Jeremiah Ginn plays everyone else, switching characters with a gesture, accent, turn of the head, deepening or lightening of his voice, and sometimes a small prop. The action moves at insane and hilarious speed. All the elements of a classic murder mystery are spoofed. There’s a knowing nod to Agatha Christie, several likely suspects who turn out to be innocent, the dramatic re-enactment of the moment of the murder. There are also breezy songs with clever lyrics. When one man sings, the other leaps to the piano to accompany him; sometimes the two fight over the keyboard; once in a while they rattle the keys together. Maybe some of the jokes are better than others, maybe a few are downright hokey, but it really doesn’t matter — because if any particular joke or piece of shtick falls flat, another follows before you can catch your breath.
The two performers are amazingly good, and very likable. Without resorting to smirks or broad winks, they seem to take us right into their confidence, sharing with us a cheerful appreciation of their own comic lunacy. Though he does have his own inspired moments, Carey’s primary task is playing straight man to Ginn, and he does it with grace and humor. As for Ginn, he’s funny beyond words, and his energy level is inspiring. Some of his characters are more defined and distinct than others. Of course, ballerina Barrette is relatively easy — those elastic arms and supple waving hands, that slightly dated English accent. Dahlia’s vanity is a hoot. Perhaps best of all is Steph, pushing her hair shyly behind her ears, breathless with admiration for Marcus. When Ginn becomes Steph, he actually does seem for fleeting moments to have transformed into this sweetly silly undergraduate, and when Steph sings in yearning tones of Marcus that “He Needs a Partner,” but can’t quite bring herself to utter the words “like me,” you find yourself smiling in the “awwww” kind of way you do when a friend posts a cute baby-animal video on Facebook. There’s nothing as unfunny as an actor trying too hard to be funny, and nothing more truly amusing than one who appears sincerely immersed in a character’s psyche and worldview, no matter how absurd that worldview may be.
Thanks to the actors’ performing and musical chops, as well as the humor and intelligence of the play itself, this production provides one of the cheeriest theatrical evenings imaginable and a great way to begin a new year.
Murder for Two, through February 21 at the Garner Galleria, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.