The Penobscot Theatre Company’s fall offering, “Murder for Two,” is a trifle of a play dressed up with a little well-executed technical theater magic. The one-act musical comedy with two actors is 90 or so minutes of silly, forgettable fun that much of Saturday night’s audience thoroughly enjoyed.
But “Murder for Two” appears to have been written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair for a much smaller, more intimate space than the Bangor Opera House. One grand piano on a raised revolving platform and two actors, with one playing multiple parts, often appear lost at sea on the vast, mostly bare stage. The show is better suited to the company’s original space, now owned by a bank.
Producing artistic director Bari Newport, who directed “Murder for Two,” once again apparently told the actors that louder and faster equals funnier. The result is that it sometimes it’s hard to understand actors Jason Cohen and Danielle Erin Rhodes. As is standard in musicals today, both are miked but the sound for Rhodes is turned up so high that her voice, at times, is painful to listen to.
The premise of “Murder for Two,” first performed in 2011 in Chicago, is that an ambitious police officer, portrayed with panache by Cohen, is called to a mansion when the owner has been murdered. He wants to solve the crime before the detective, who is about 90 minutes away, shows up. Rhodes plays all the suspects with style. And, both play the piano, separately and together, and sing and dance.
It takes about 20 minutes for theatergoers to sort out the suspects Rhodes is playing and to link the accents, walks and wiggles she uses to differentiate them to the characters. Once the audience has that down, the actress takes it on a wonderful tour of the suspects and their individual motives for murder. Rhodes’ performance is far superior to the material.
Cohen is charming in the role of the cop who longs for a detective’s shield. He matches Rhodes’s multiple portrayals by varying his interrogation tactics with each suspect. Cohen also captures the spirit of a small town cop and doesn’t rely on television stereotypes to create his character.
The real stars of “Murder for Two” are lighting designer Jonathan Spencer and sound designer Brandi Larkin. Because the stage is so bare, Spencer’s dynamic lighting and the sound of breaking cups and saucers, gunshots and slamming doors Larkin creates add atmosphere to the production.
Over the previous six seasons, PTC has presented a mystery in the fall four times — “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 2010, “The Woman in Black” in 2013 and “The Mystery of Irma Vep” in 2014. All were better choices than “Murder for Two,” not only because they have far superior scripts but the were far better suited for the Opera House’s cavernous stage.
Everyone involved in PTC’s production of “Murder for Two” works doggedly, especially Rhodes, to overcome the fatal flaws in the material. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to lift such mediocrity to the level theatergoers expect and deserve from Newport and PTC.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s “Murder For Two” runs through Nov. 6 at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are available online at penobscottheatre.org or through the box office, or by calling 942-3333.