Joe Kinosian is a master of timing and assurance. These talents, evident even when Kinosian breaks character and the fourth wall to sternly chide someone for harboring a ringing cell phone, provided lots of luster, and much laughter, as Kinosian plays multiple parts in the murder musical he wrote with Kellen Blair, “Murder for Two,” on stage through October 25 at George Street Playhouse.
Kinosian, responsible for “Murder’s” music and some of its book, measures every word and gesture so deftly that he can move material along at a fast pace while it seems as if he’s nonchalantly taking his time.
The result is clarity. With Kinosian on stage, every joke, sight gag, gimmick, and nuance registers, so “Murder for Two” remains a consistent comic delight. More clever than witty, more amiable than rollicking, “Murder for Two” has a brightness that comes from its cannily convoluted plot and collection of silly characters, which, in addition to Kinosian’s dozen, includes a wannabe police detective, played with gusto by Ian Lowe, and a bumbling beat cop represented at one point by the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock.
Kinosian is the key. He is meticulous in defining each of his roles, whether a dotty and increasingly inebriated widow, a prima ballerina constantly practicing limb extension, or ice cream-filching children, and he separates each beat of his precise performance with cunning aplomb.
Kinosian never seems hurried or hectic, traits that marred a previous production I’ve seen of “Murder for Two,” one also directed by Scott Schwartz, choreographed by Wendy Seyb, and co-starring Lowe. His relaxed manner, crisp diction, and scrupulous attention to detail allow you enjoy all of his characters’ antics. Kinosian works cleanly. An Irish firefighter’s step dance, the character’s sole mode of movement, remains fastidiously exact in his hands (or, more accurately, with his feet). He makes the ballerina seem lithe and graceful.
Kinosian’s excellence shows Schwartz’s work in a better light than in previously stagings I’ve seen. Because his timing is so taut and rhythm so sure, gags that seemed gratuitous or sloppy play well and make sense. Schwartz has room yet to fine tune, such as in “Murder’s” opening, when its two actors play tug of war with a piano cover and thwart each other in a race to see who will be first to show his musical talent at the keyboard. In general Schwartz’s gambits work. His direction enhances the humor with which Kinosian and Blair liberally endowed their book.
Lowe, whose work in a previous production was admirable, is even better in league with Kinosian. The author’s pace tends to inform Lowe’s, and he gives a tighter, more polished performance. His pairing with Kinosian seems like more of a partnership, more an effort at teamwork than his last outing. The more punctilious timing creates strong byplay, especially in scenes between Lowe’s detective, Marcus Moskovicz, and the murder victim’s niece, a criminal justice major who wants to assist in the investigation of her uncle’s death. Lowe’s natural charm and own flair for comic timing show through. He is less frenetic and more pointed than in the earlier production, thus endowing his character with more personality and extra opportunity to score with the shtick Kinosian, Blair, and Schwartz assign him.
The best part about seeing “Murder for Two” with Kinosian is that the mystery plot he and Blair so intricately crafted has room to breathe, engage, and amuse. When all seems breakneck and geared more toward speed and slapstick than accuracy, the solution of a famous author’s murder gets lost in the mayhem. With Kinosian keeping a firm grasp on the production’s rhythm, and Lowe matching his lead, you can savor more of “Murder’s” silly concoction and see how carefully everything meshes.
Lowe’s first big number is about the protocol a detective must follow while considering a case. That protocol was always a framework for Kinosian and Blair’s script, but at George Street, you see how it influences the entire plot.
You also have a strong sense of each character. The writer’s snobby wife, now his widow, is miffed when people choose coffee over tea. The ballerina speaks in breathy, extended tones with a hint of accent as she denies killing the man with whom she is having an affair. The three boys with a taste for ice cream sound like a trio of Dead End Kids whose snappy street language entertains.
Lowe’s Marcus reveals his ambition, especially when he accesses his chief’s voice mail to be overheard demonstrating his firm grasp of protocol, but you also see the character’s growing prowess and confidence as a detective.
“Murder for Two” abounds with gimmicks. Marcus must solve the writer’s murder before a more experienced detective arrives at the crime scene. A talkative psychiatrist violates client confidentiality by revealing his patients’ secrets and neuroses to the writer, who may have been killed for sharing them with his readers. The author’s wife is more obsessed with how the ice cream disappeared than she is with her husband’s killing, which takes place as he enters a surprise birthday party she’s arranged. Some surprise!
Few of these plot twists are brilliant, but they are entertaining and worth hearing. Kinosian and Blair did a competent job with their plotting, and they accompany their mystery with jaunty music and songs, the tunes by Kinosian, and the lyrics by Blair.
Kinosian and Lowe require a wide range of talents. Each must sing and dance as well as act with comic elan. Each must also be a whiz at the piano. Kinosian’s score plays as if its notes are running off their pages. Two-handed bits are a special delight, and, at the end of the show, a mirror is hauled in so the George Street audience can see Kinosian and Lowe’s dexterous hands in action.
The George Street production has markedly changed my opinion of “Murder for Two.” On first sight I thought it was an undisciplined, overwritten, feverishly performed mess. Now I see it as a mildly fulfilling flapdoodle that doesn’t make demands on its audience but generously gives them a lot to enjoy and admire.
Murder for Two, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, October 25, Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m., and Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m. $28 to $69. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.