All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Murder for Two — Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre

untitled (100)Kyle Branzel’s V-neck must weigh seven pounds by the time he’s finished playing a dozen or so characters, including three ice cream filching Cub Scouts, in the breakneck musical, “Murder for Two.”

Branzel, directed by Scott Schwartz, is a perpetual motion machine, jumping from the piano he shares with co-star Ian Lowe, to limp, tap, and step dance across the Suzanne Roberts stage in a frenzy of characterization and mayhem.

Although “Murder for Two” has music by Joe Kinosian and lyrics by Kellen Blair and a script, an alleged mystery, by both of them, Branzel is the whole show. If it weren’t for his skill at antics and rubber-faced knack for expressions, “Murder for Two” might turn into “Murder for Three” because you would just as soon kill yourself, or more appropriately, Kinosian and Blair, as watch it.

Branzel is hilarious but not entertaining. Scott Schwartz’s pace doesn’t let him be. Hurry disguises the emptiness of Kinosian and Blair’s story, you see. If you’re laughing at Branzel, which I grant can be a reward of its own — He’s cute in addition to being talented. — you may not notice that every clue and every character is facile and ill-defined. Speed and zaniness is what’s being peddled at the Roberts, and it’s just not good enough to warrant spending time, or money, to see it. Wait until you see the name Kyle Branzel on a comedy club marquee or as Pippin. He is the only reason for even tiptoeing near “Murder for Two,” and he wears out his welcome quickly when you realize Schwartz’s production of “Murder for Two” is all frantic motion without an ounce of substance or anything to engage you.

After 10 minutes that convinces you Branzel is a gem and Lowe is pretty good, you wonder if you’re ever going to have a mystery, or anything of the slightest interest to engage you. Schwartz doesn’t present comedy to you. He throws it at you. You’re obviously supposed to think that something that is comic in concept remains humorous when it’s not played out with care. Branzel may be a dazzling chameleon and deft vaudeville clown, but he isn’t given the chance to show more than his potential because “Murder for Two” has no core. It’s the race to get to the 90 minutes lazy current playwrights and stingy producers have decided is the time limit for a show these days, and the race is for naught because the horse’s novelty wears out before “Murder for Two” is a tenth of its way to the finishing line.

Everyone involved deserves better. Especially Kyle Branzel and the Philadelphia Theatre Company audience that can judge Branzel’s gifts but is bored in spite of them.

If Kinosian and Blair wrote anything worth doing — “Murder for Two” was lauded when it played at New York’s Second Stage, an estimable company, last season. — then let’s see a better measured performance of it. Let’s see Branzel take a second more time to identify characters by more than an accent or strange walk. Let’s if the ongoing missing ice cream gag is a decent gambit or not. Let’s let a bickering contretemps in which Branzel plays both combatants, breathe in addition to being another good idea that fizzles because of thoughtless execution.  Let’s see if Kinosian and Blair supply real clues that lead to a logical solution of a murder. Let’s see how Lowe’s detective foils the killer. Let’s see if there’s a script behind what plays as unstructured chaos, quite a feat considering how much choreography Wendy Seyb provided.

Much happens in “Murder for Two,” but little registers as watchable. The point may be the mystery doesn’t matter and is only as excuse for a wild romp that shows off one actor’s versatility.

To underscore a previous comment, it’s not enough.

“Murder for Two,” as presented at the Roberts, is too disorganized to entertain. The madness, if it exists beyond Branzel’s sprint through his material, has no method to it. It remains unorchestrated. It’s mayhem for mayhem’s sake. We’re supposed to accept non-stop physical comedy, however exceptionally performed by Branzel, as an entirety when we should be demanding a more carefully worked-out and staged story that would make Branzel’s zeal, and endurance, seem even more remarkable. Characters should be more finely drawn and more specifically noticeable. Yes, extended arms and a flutter across the stage indicate, a ballerina with motive to kill. Just as a limp, a cocktail, and a bad wig denote the victim’s possibly homicidal wife. But what do they have to do with a murder investigation beyond being stereotypically bizarre? And why does no one believe what sounds like the wife’s confession? Kinosian and Blair have taken the time to pinpoint some details, so why does Schwartz not have the goodness, or competence, to show them,

Schwartz’s production is a shambles. I regard it as a fraud. It wants to get by on an impression of comedy instead of attaining professional gloss by treating us to a cogent, carefully worked out story instead of just the obvious jokes.

The production could maintain a brisk pace. Branzel could remain a whirlwind. Lowe could be an enjoyable castmate. All I’m asking for is some care that acknowledges a story is involved, one the audience should have the advantage of being able to savor it along with gratuitous hijinks that seem to be the total of what Schwartz can muster.

Luckily, he has Branzel in tow to garner some appreciation. Kinosian and Blair should be spitting at Schwartz from car windows for making a total travesty of a piece that may have some value.

I wouldn’t know. At the Roberts, Schwartz did not have the goodness or skill to reveal “Murder for Two” as anything but a perspiration-inducing comic marathon for Branzel. (Hence the seven-pound V-neck.) Anything truly witty or clever about the piece would have come across as the merest suggestion because no time is given for the audience to enjoy it.

If it’s there. From what I saw, Kinosian and Blair’s musical is one extended party routine that goes on too long. “When,” you ask yourself, “is someone going to swing from a chandelier or do something to vary this one-trick monkey?”

At the Roberts, “Murder for Two” is one big mess, and a gloppy, oozing one at that. Kinosian and Blair’s material has been vomited on to the stage, not carefully worked out as a polished, professional entertainment. If there’s merit in the musical, it will have to rebel against the complacency with Schwartz staged this work. He takes its laughs for granted, as if they come by magic instead of by artistry. Or has this production, and these actors, been involved in “Murder for Two” so long, they lost their edge and are unconsciously doing a mad dash instead of a show?

I was listening. Laughter could be heard, but it wasn’t rollicking or universal. I could not help laughing at some of Branzel’s goofing. It was the one element of quality. But my laughter wasn’t steady. It was a momentary reaction to some inspiration of Branzel’s (that may have at one time have been an inspiration of Schwartz’s, Seyb’s, Kinosian’s, or Blair’s). For instance, when Branzel appears as an Irishman who was in the bathroom when the murder occurred, and who moves only by step dancing while speaking in a thick brogue. When Branzel takes his first step, arms fused against his ribs, and legs kicking high and sideways, he is hilarious. Finally, a bit lands squarely, or steppily, where it should. Timing and focus were on Branzel’s side, and he made the most of introducing the comic trait of his Irisher.

NealBoxThen what happens. As the Irishman makes more appearances, Branzel’s portrayal of him becomes less sharp. The Irish dance steps that were crisp and defined are only hinted at. Legs are flicked instead of kicked. The haughty position Branzel chose for the Irishman to hold his head becomes slack and taken for granted. A brilliant gambit is compromised.

I would never say “Murder for Two” is brilliant. From the opening night performance, I wouldn’t say it has any value at all. It is, nonetheless, compromised by being mounted so haphazardly. So some of what peeked out from amid the mayhem may have merit it will take a different production to reveal. As readers will see when I write about “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the Lantern, I think Matthew Pfeiffer and his cast transgressed by submerging a mystery in unyielding comedy, but at least Pfeiffer and company had their pacing down, so that their slapstick works if Arthur Conan Doyle is thrown to the dogs. Schwartz leaves “Murder for Two” without style, substance, or purpose. Any mystery Kinosian and Blair took the trouble to devise is lost in the random commotion Schwartz tries to pass off as a play. I long to see a different production of “Murder for Two” so I can assess all of its elements instead of admiring one performer, Branzel, for his endurance and knack for inventiveness.

“Murder for Two” takes place at a surprise birthday party for a mystery writer everybody hates. The cause for the unanimous disdain is the author’s habit of including traits people would prefer to keep secret in his plots. No one knows how the writer learns of his neighbors’ seamier side, but many are angry at being depicted, identifiably, in the writer’s stories. Through the muddle, I sense Kinosian and Blair gave their characters a chance to tell their stories. Except for the tale of a psychiatrist and the victim’s wife, none of this seemingly salient information is handled well enough in Schwartz’s sprawling production to register as important. The ongoing ice cream joke certainly melts into nothing. Schwartz makes Kinosian and Blair’s vehicle look like drivel, while Branzel rides it as a way to display a panoply of talents, comic and musical.

How nice for Branzel if his considerable wares were showcased more skillfully, so they could be appreciated as disciplined instead of being admired as madcap without definition or refinement.

I am tired of mysteries no longer being mysteries, a subject I’ll cover in NealsPaper’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” review. I am also disdainful of a younger generation’s idea that the physical is enough of a provocation for a laugh. Comedy, and mystery, need underpinning. They need something happening underneath and in the background.

“Murder for Two” defies logic, has no substance, and is built solely around two characters busily flouncing about the stage, one playing a couple dozen characters, one stuck with a single police officer who sees the murder at hand as a way of earning his detective’s badge (a facsimile of which he had made and carries with him, a joke Schwartz forces Lowe to waste.

In all the praise of Branzel, who is, frankly, the salvager of what could have been an even more boring, unfulfilling theater outing, I have neglected Ian Lowe, who is also quite excellent if just as sacrificed to Schwartz’s decision to stage a spectacle instead of a show.

Lowe doesn’t have as much to do as Branzel, but he plays his wannabe detective with comic sincerity and soaks his Scooby Doo T-shirt with perspiration as well.. You know what Lowe’s character’s aim is. It’s not Lowe’s fault the Schwartz doesn’t let you chalk up clues and try to solve the murder case along with Lowe’s policeman, Marcus.

Lowe blessedly gets a reprieve from “Murder for Two” after June 21, when Brandon Lambert takes stage with Branzel.

There are songs in “Murder for Two” but they are undistinguished and have no particular wit or entertainment value. It is impressive how well Branzel and Lowe play the piano. An opening gambit in which the two vie for dominance over the piano, presages two things — that “Murder for Two” will have some funny bits and that Schwartz’s production is going to be helter skelter. The dueling for the pianos is entertaining but carelessly done. (Angles don’t fit. Things aren’t clockwork. Pace is off, rushing not dragging.)

That will be the way of the entire performance. Branzel and Lowe will entertain but in a slapdash manner that keeps “Murder for Two” from being enjoyable. Breakneck became trainwreck. For all of the effort expended to entertain me, I was mostly bored and looking forward to leaving “Murder for Two” behind me.

One doesn’t insist on sophistication for what is obviously a tossed-off flapdoodle. Jokes and physical comedy will do. I adore elemental comedy. I only ask for theatrical quality that comes up to a tolerable standard and not mere mayhem that uses one actor’s cuteness and talent to charm. The worst part is Branzel does charm, and “Murder for Two” is still a failure. About the only one besides the performers who can be praised is Wendy Seyb for the versatile choreography that gives “Murder for Two” and Branzel some headstart.

The hopeful news is Philadelphia Theatre Company has booked Amanda Dehnert’s excellent production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” for its holiday slot. Ludwig and Dehnert show what Schwartz, Kinosian, Blair, and Pfeiffer do not, that comedy and mystery, even farce, can co-exist in a production that is not Maria Aitken’s original conception of “The 39 Steps.” (For a NealsPaper review of “Baskerville,” visit

“Murder for Two” runs through Sunday, June 28, presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting

One comment on “Murder for Two — Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre

  1. Curtis M
    June 14, 2015

    What a rude and demeaning review of such a lovely show. I saw it the other night and had a great time–as did everyone in the audience–but that’s beside the point. The only people the writers should “spit on” is you, sir, for your base and immature attack of their work. You either like the piece or you don’t and you’re certainly allowed to say whatever you want on your own website, but for heaven’s sakes have some humanity, man! I can’t remember the last time I read such an unprofessional, unfair piece of slander. Critiquing the show and even stating that you didn’t care for it is one thing, but cutting these poor men down to shreds and attacking their character is downright irresponsible of you. I hope they never see your cowardly and demoralizing words… no one should have to be bullied like that. Yes, the play isn’t “Death of Salesman,” but I was certainly entertained the whole evening. There is a relevant and noble place in the American theatre for a good old fashioned farce and the standing ovation and cheers and whistles at the end of the performance I saw are proof positive that you are certainly in the minority by a long shot in your misunderstanding of one of the freshest and most entertaining shows that’s come through this town in quite a long time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow me on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: