Jeff Blumenkrantz, left, and Brett Ryback have a ball at the keys in "Murder for Two," now at New World Stages.
It's easy to forget, despite the name of the show, that everything happening onstage at "Murder for Two" rests on the capable shoulders of Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz. As the vaudevillian murder mystery unfolds, an impressive amount frenetic energy pours out of Ryback and Blumenkrantz and into the large cast of characters they create — while simultaneously accompanying each other on the Steinway that sits center stage.
The story explores a murder that happened during a fancy New England cocktail party, and rookie cop Marcus (Ryback) arrives to interrogate the coterie of guests-turned-suspects, all played by Blumenkrantz. We spoke to Ryback about playing the straight man to Blumenkrantz's schizoid cast of characters.
Though you guys share the stage and the story, your character Marcus is the guy who ultimately moves the plot along. Is that hard, while your fellow actor is embodying so many characters?
Yes, it is a challenge to strike that balance of having my character, Marcus, carry some weight and meaning while at the same time mining the silliness and the comedy. And then there's also the supreme challenge, just energy-wise, in having to constantly keep getting the show back to the task at hand. So much of Jeff's characters seek to — in the writing, not necessarily in the performance of it — undermine or distract Marcus, and so energy-wise a lot of it is being the steady hand to Jeff's mania.
You also accompany each other and even share the piano bench throughout the show. Is it hard to keep all of that straight?
The music presents a unique challenge in that there's a lot of times when we sit down at the keys, but what is happening in the character's mind is completely separate from either accompanying ourselves or accompanying the other person. There is one part where I'm interrogating the character of Dahlia [the party's host] while playing and trying to be completely unaware that I'm musically providing the accompaniment to what she's saying. If you're not careful, your rhythm goes on the piano, your fingers start doing things you're unaware of. That was certainly one of the biggest challenges in the learning of the score.
Yes, this show seems like such a high bar for any performer, just in terms of how much you're responsible for onstage.
You know, it's funny. In between the summer run and our transfer [from Second Stages Uptown to New World Stages], I went back to L.A. and did a production of Niel Simon's "Broadway Bound," I played Stanley, the brother. It was like a break! With Simon's writing, you just said the lines and did the scenes and went home. But this show is so demanding and takes a lot of fine-tuning. We're always fine-tuning, because just a shade or a color here or there will completely change the reaction of the audience, so we're always trying to find the alchemy of the comedy. It's also extremely satisfying, just the two of us for 90 minutes straight, and when we have a great show and they're up on their feet at the end, there's nothing more exciting, really.
A lot of the humor has that vaudeville sensibility, can you tell me about that?
I would thank Scott Schwartz, our director, for that. He helped us build a really strong foundation that came from a place of honesty, not just for the sake of getting laughs, but for the sake of creating a real story and a relationship. That allowed us to grow even throughout the production. Sometimes, with shows like that, they'll fall apart if it gets crazier and crazier; ours got tighter and tighter throughout the process, and I feel like we really connected with that honest foundation.
What was the toughest part of this show for you?
Well, when you're in a show and it has a larger cast, you'll spend a day or part of a day rehearsing a scene and then you'll go sit down and you can use that time to process what you just did and look over your script. There's some time and some processing that happens. For this show, we'd be rehearsing nonstop and then catch our breath and get water and then be back in a brand new scene. I mean, you go home and you're exhausted because there's so much less time to process everything.
What are you working toward in your performance as the run continues?
Now the biggest challenge — in this but really any show — is going out and making it brand new again without it getting out of hand. We do like to play, and there's a lot of room to play in the show, but ultimately we have to keep the stakes high and always be moving it forward. It's easy to forget that and just go out and have too much fun.