By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
It's been a great year for actors playing multiple characters in the same show: From Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar to Jefferson Mays in the upcoming Broadway premiere of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, virtuosic gents are regularly stealing the spotlight.
But as entertaining as these bravura performances are, they're subject to some essential questions: Why is this happening? Are these actors playing a dozen roles apiece because it's fun to watch a performer push himself, or is there a deeper reason why a production needs one person to inhabit so many people? Murder for Two, a musical comedy now at Second Stage Uptown, has particularly interesting answers.
On the simplest level, the show is a raucous murder-mystery about a cop named Marcus (Brett Ryback) investigating the murder of a local author. As Marcus works, he meets a variety of eccentric townspeople, including Dahlia, the author's widow and a wannabe actress; Barrette, a sultry ballerina; Steph, an ingénue with dreams of being a detective herself; and Timmy, a tough-talking, nine year-old scamp in a local boys choir.
All these people, plus almost half a dozen more, are played by Jeff Blumenkrantz (pictured above). But here's the thing: Sometimes, he also plays "Jeff," an exaggerated version of himself. When the show begins, for instance, we see "Jeff" and "Brett" on stage, competing for control of a piano. (They accompany all the songs themselves.) Instead of jumping right into the mystery, we get a taste of who the actors are and how they feel about performing together.
"It's something that was very important to our director, Scott Schwartz," says Blumenkrantz. "He wanted the show to operate as more than a romp, more than a theatrical exercise. One of the main themes he chose to bring to the forefront was partnership, so in the opening, we establish that we are two performers being forced to work with an acting partner with whom there's no kinship.
"It's the journey from, 'I don't want to work with you' to 'I'm happy to be working with you.' I think that gives the show a little more heft than just telling the story for no reason."
The conceit creates tension and comedy, like when the detective wants to speak to a particular suspect and "Jeff" refuses to play that role. "I think it's funny that sometimes it's Jeff the Actor who openly messes with him, and other times, I can use the veil of a character to do the same," Blumenkrantz says.
Of course, the real-life Jeff and Brett have to trust each other, or else they couldn't pull off this complex production. Blumenkrantz especially appreciates that as he gets zanier and zanier, Ryback stays grounded. "He's the rock and I'm the mosquito," he says. "If he were trying to be a mosquito too, then it wouldn't work because we'd be spinning around each other, which would be chaos. But he maintains his one character, while I morph around him, which ultimately gives more texture to what we both are doing."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus