A scene from "Murder for Two" at The Old Glube. Courtesy photo
A scene from “Murder for Two” at The Old Globe. Courtesy photo

By Pat Launer

It sounded like it was gonna be silly (and it was). Madcap (yup). Goofy and over-the-top (check, check). And yet, in spite of all this (not my favorite elements in a play or musical), “Murder for Two” is simply irresistible.

It’s more than a little reminiscent of two other musicals recently seen in San Diego: “Gunmetal Blues,” currently running at North Coast Repertory Theatre, where two actors (one of them playing an onstage piano) create multiple murder suspects, while another tries to crack the case. And “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (which got its start at The Old Globe, before going on to snag numerous accolades in 2014, including the coveted Best Musical Tony Award), wherein one actor plays all the varied victims in a gleeful killing spree.

Now, along comes “Murder for Two,” in which one agile, versatile performer, Joe Kinosian (who also happens to have co-written the book and composed the music) portrays all the potential homicide suspects. The death occurred at a surprise party in New England, where the Birthday Boy, a Great American Novelist, was shot in the head upon entering.

The second actor, Ian Lowe, plays the hapless detective-wannabe, a beat cop gunning for a promotion, if he can just follow “Protocol” (“it’s the only partnership I need,” he sings) and find the assassin, without falling for the lissome ballerina (Kinosian at his rubber-legged best) or take on a partner, the wide-eyed ingénue, Steph, who’s studying criminology and has some very pointed ideas about helping him (the title of her thesis is “How to Assist in the Solving of a Small-town Murder”). The not-yet-detective got burned by his last partner, and he’s still trying to mend his badly broken heart.

He tries to be systematic in his interviews with the attendees, each of whom has been the focus of one of the writer’s books, but he keeps being thwarted — by the overbearing, bespectacled wife of the victim (only very minor, if any, props are used, but Beowulf Boritt’s bare-bones set cunningly includes all the weapons provided in the ‘Clue’ board game), or the battling older couple from next door, or the heavily accented Freudian psychiatrist, or the three little tykes who’ve seen it all (“We Seen Wois”), played by Kinosian on his knees, wearing a baseball cap three different ways.

Oh, did I mention that the actors also play piano? — excellently and humorously, knocking each other off the bench, plunking the keys with a foot, four-handed, double-deckered and more.

This duo makes a marvelous Mutt-and-Jeff team (Kinosian is tall and gangly; Lowe is short and zhlubby, in the manner of Columbo-style gumshoes). The show (whose website claims it “puts the Laughter in Slaughter!”) premiered in 2011 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and played for eight months Off Broadway in 2013-14, garnering nominations from the Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle. It won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Musical during its extended run in Chicago. The national tour began last November.

As I said, you can’t help but fall under the spell of this show — and suffer whiplash watching Kinosian cavort around the stage like a madman on fire. He does slow down, delectably, to stretch or extend his long limbs as that balletic seductress.

Director Scott Schwartz, who also directed the New York production, is a frequent visitor to San Diego; this is his sixth show at The Old Globe, and he recently helmed “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the La Jolla Playhouse. He has a marvelous sense of pacing and timing  — as do, of course, those two vastly comical performers. Kellen Blair’s lyrics (he also co-wrote the book) are very clever. There are a couple of killer songs, and comical meta-theatrical asides.  The ovation at the end is enough to warrant a piano encore.

The sound (Jill BD Du Boff) and lighting (Jason Lyons), as well as the choreography (Wendy Seyb) provide superb support. And the guys don’t overstay their welcome. This whodunit clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes.

Okay, there isn’t much depth or substance. This one’s just for pure escapist entertainment.

  • “Murder for Two” runs through March 1 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park
  • Performances are 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays (plus 2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18); 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m Saturday (no matinee Saturday, Feb. 21), 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets ($29 and up) are available at 619-234-5623 or online at www.theoldglobe.org
  • Running time: 90 min.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.