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If you’re ready to shake off the anxieties of the age (not to mention the stress of the holiday season) for a couple of hours, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston has you covered with a murder mystery spoof that’s less a whodunit than a circus of song and comedy.
Starting as a surprise birthday party for prolific novelist Arthur Whitney, "Murder for Two" takes a turn for the criminal when Arthur gets an even bigger surprise: a bullet between the eyes. (It’s a mark of the show’s imaginative staging that instead of a corpse tumbling to the floor what we get are a scattering of paperbacks -- the victim’s "body" of work.)
Jared Troilo plays Marcus, an ambitious young police officer who’s looking for a promotion. When he’s summoned to the scene of the murder, he arrives exactly one hour before the detective assigned to the case is expected to arrive. Determined to impress his superiors, Marcus decides he's going to solve the case in short order. To that end, he passes himself off as a detective to a house full of suspects and begins to interrogate them according to a three-step protocol that he has faith will reveal the identity of the killer.
There are almost a dozen suspects, all of them played by Kirsten Salpini, who snaps from one character to the next with flawless timing and total control over the material. We distinguish the various characters from the vocal stylings Salpini has mastered: Wife Dahlia has a rich Southern belle way of speaking; psychotherapist (or could that be psycho therapist?) Dr. Griff has a German accent; ballerina Barrette Lewis takes after the French style (could she have choreographed the evening’s dance of death?).
There’s also a feuding couple, Murray and Barbara, who sound like they come from Brooklyn by way of a 1940s radio play. The victim’s niece, a budding criminologist named Steph, is alternately a suspect and an assistant to the investigation -- and, not incidentally, a possible new love interest for Marcus, who is still heartbroken following a disastrous office romance. Rounding out the rogues’ gallery are the last three survivors of an ill-fated boys’ chorus.
Salpini takes care to differentiate each character so that the audience can keep up even when Officer Marcus gets confused about whom he’s talking to -- or, as the case might be, singing with. The show is stuffed with comic songs, from a tender ballad of friendship to a show-stopping number complete with disco mirror ball and multiple remote controls. Troilo and Salpini take turns at the piano, occasionally switching mid-song with absolutely no gap or shift in timing or delivery. Their virtuosity is astonishing.
Not so astonishing is the plot, which is pure fluff. As a matter of personal taste, I found it a little too "dinner theater." That, however, is exactly the point, and writers Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) go out of their way to underscore the show’s over-the-top fakeness. The contents of the victim’s novels provide both motives and clues, and also spin into a meta funhouse when the characters and the situation turn out to be part of one of the books. Scenic designer Shelley Barish gets into the spirit too. We never forget we’re watching a show, partly because the set design won’t allow us to, what with its chessboard floor, a handy trap door through which various props are disposed of and retrieved, wildly exaggerated pools of blood situated here and there, and a curtain of red velvet draped dramatically in the background. “Murder for Two” is a good-natured exercise in not simply suspending your disbelief, but rather using it as a swing set.
This is theater meant as pure entertainment in the lightest, silliest way possible. It’s the sort of good, (mostly) clean fun that a game of “Clue” would be, and, in fact, director A. Nora Long confesses in the program notes to being a huge fan of the movie based on the board game. Fittingly, a sense of all-out zaniness informs Long’s direction — and, on occasion, misdirection; this is a mystery, after all, and we’re kept guessing (and giggling) until the very end.
“Murder for Two” continues at the Lyric Stage Company through Dec. 24. For tickets and more information, visit the Lyric’s website.
Here's a peek at the two actors rehearsing:
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