Murder mysteries aren't typically described as "cute." But that adjective can easily be applied to Murder for Two, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse.
Musical theater has a tendency to treat whodunits as laughing matters (see: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder). Though Murder for Two is tonally similar to those shows, it's a bit more endearing, thanks to the relationship between the cast of two: Brett Ryback plays the investigator, while Jeff Blumenkrantz plays all of the suspects, in a turn reminiscent of Jefferson Mays' in Gentleman's Guide (both musicals premiered around the same time).
Ryback is full of earnest gumption as would-be detective Marcus Moscowicz, determined to find out who killed notorious novelist Arthur Whitney (an Agatha Christie type) at his birthday party, and the banter (by turns silent, sung and spoken) between him and Blumenkrantz is delightful. But it's really Blumenkrantz's show, and he delights in the freedom he's afforded, easily swapping between and differentiating among the 10 characters he plays.
The show's best moments are when Blumenkrantz and Ryback's chemistry is given the chance to shine, most often during the scenes where Blumenkrantz is playing Steph, the author's niece, a well-intentioned grad student with a crush on Marcus — who is, in turn, transfixed by the ballerina Barrette Lewis (also played by Blumenkrantz, of course). It's a weird love triangle, and it gets a bit meta at times, but it works.
Director Scott Schwartz speeds through Kellen Blair and Jeff Kinosian's show, focusing less on the story and more on the characters. And why not? It's undeniably fun watching Blumenkrantz flit from personality to personality, and seeing how those changes affect Ryback's Marcus (the brief appearance of one character, who shows up about two-thirds of the way through the show, seems to be an inside joke between the actors, whose facades briefly cracked before they continued with the story). Both actors acquit themselves equally well through the show's physical comedy, dialogue and music — music provided solely by both performers, on the piano that sits center stage.
Murder for Two doesn't have much substance to it, but it's an entertaining, vaudeville-style romp delivered with gusto.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through Aug 2. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com.
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