Dial M for “Murder for Two” at Mason Street
SAUGATUCK, Mich.–Sometimes the talent of the performers so completely overwhelms the script and the score and the set that nothing else matters. In fact, I suspect most of the people who attended Friday night’s opening of Murder for Two at Saugatuck’s Mason Street Warehouse may have a hard time remembering who the killer is in this whacky whodunit.
But they won’t forget the murder victim’s southern belle widow Dahlia, or his cigarette chewing psychiatrist Dr. Griff, hair-stroking niece Steph, and lisping little choir boy Yonkers – just a few of the 10 characters created by Chicago actor Tom Vendafreddo in this manic murder mystery. Balancing this barrage of suspects is wanna-be detective Officer Marcus, played by New York actor Brian Walters, whose more complex character development helps to keep the tale on track.
As if acting and singing weren’t enough, Vendafreddo and Walters also take turns at the stage-dominating grand piano accompanying the musical numbers. Sometimes they play the piano together, their amazing four-hand keyboard coordination symbolic of the way they share the stage.
Director David Eggers has set a frentic pace, which keeps the audience from having much of a chance to question the thin plot. Written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, Murder for Two doesn’t dawdle with costume changes and campy commentary as you may remember in the two-man satire, The Mystery of Irma Vep.
In Murder for Two, Vendafreddo transforms from one character to the next with the turn of a head, a change of accent and expression, the addition of glasses or scarf. At first this is confusing when all the characters show up at a surprise birthday party. But Vendafreddo is so convincing in assuming each personality that by the end of the 90-minute one-act the characters are so real you expect them to return to take a bow.
The birthday boy, an unseen novelist, is shot in the head as soon as he opens the door into his darkened mansion. “Surprise!”
Filling in for a detained detective, Officer Marcus discovers all the party guests have motive to kill the novelist because he depicted their secrets in his books. As Marcus chats with an unseen officer Lou, it becomes apparent Marcus also has secrets in his past. With the help of Steph, the victim’s niece who just happens to be a criminal justice student and attracted to Marcus, the killer is identified and arrested in probably the show’s least dramatic moment.
Although the songs in the show tend to be variations on a theme, there’s a snappy patter rhyme that’s infectious. This first becomes apparent as Marcus sings about what “Protocol Says.” A similar effect takes over when neighbor Murray blames his wife in “It Was Her” or the ballerina mistress sings “So What If I Did?”
One of the funniest numbers is when a trio of choir boys sing about the horrors today’s kids have seen in “A Lot Worse.” Vendafreddo plays the nine-year-olds by getting on his knees, differentiating between Timmy, Yonkers and Skid by whether the bill of the baseball cap faces front, side or back. The humorous lyrics pale in comparison to the contortions Vendafreddo creates by being on his knees.
Set designer Stephen Dobay has cluttered the stage with a mishmash of props, furniture and even a building outlined in lights that seem to make up for the fact that there are only two actors on the large stage. About the only furnishings that are used are a pair of rolling doors for various entrances and exits and the lovely piano in the center of the stage. Lighting designer Jennifer Kules keeps the audience focused on the action, with lighting accenting the darkened crime scene and sometimes changing as fast as the characters.
At one point, playing all the characters and all the music requires more than four hands so the actors recruit an assistant from the audience, which seems to fit right into this anything-can-happen mayhem.
Don’t ask who done it or why. It doesn’t matter. But don’t miss this amazing feat of acting, singing and piano playing. If there were a Summer Olympics for the stage, this one would take the gold.