Arthur Whitney's surprise birthday party is a surprise, all right. He walks in and gets shot in the head. Whodunit? In the daft show called "Murder for Two," we might even find out.

Philadelphia Theatre Company has brought in a touring production of the mystery musical composed by Joe Kinosian and with lyrics by Kellen Blair, who both wrote the show's book. It's early-summer fun -- one of two goofy murder mysteries running in Center City, the other one being Lantern Theater's "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Each is a spoof on the mystery genre, as well as a mystery.

I saw them both the same day, Wednesday, probably a mistake. Too much goofing and too much spoofing turns your mind into cornmeal mush. (I'll post a "Baskervilles" review next week.) "Murder for Two" was a surprise – for a musical, it has precious few songs, although its two actors take turns at the piano, providing not just accompaniment but plenty of tuneful backup.

Those two actors drive the show, which is full of puns, more than a little slapstick and some stuff that's just plain dumb. The performers are a likable and smiley Ian Lowe, who plays the officer trying to solve the murder, and lanky, loose-limbed, rubber-faced and super boyish Kyle Branzel, who plays everyone at the birthday party. Together, they and director Scott Schwartz ("Golda's Balcony" on Broadway) bring a pizzazz to "Murder for Two" that surpasses the material they're given.

Some of that material is laugh-out-loud funny; in the hands of straight-man Lowe and over-the-top Branzel, all of it becomes bizarre. Lowe plays a police officer sent to the birthday party to keep everyone there until the detective comes. Once the guests – all portrayed by a furiously busy Branzel – see the officer, they assume he's the detective, which is what he's wanted to be all along. So he lets them think that he is.

A surly psychiatrist, a prima-donna ballerina, the wife of the murdered man, a wildly funny Irish fireman with a Riverdance complex -- these are only a few of the roles Branzel slips in and out of, in a flash. I found the first half-hour of the show a bit lame, but then I began to see what was going on: it wasn't "Murder for Two" that mattered as much as the talent in the room, and the chemistry the two guys exude. After a while, it doesn't matter much that the crime be solved. What counts is the fun that Lowe and Branzel create along the way which becomes, as the show moves along, a classic laff-riot.

 


"Murder for Two" is being presented by Philadelphia Theatre Company through June 28 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, on Broad Street at Lombard. 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org. For the last week of the show, Ian Lowe, who plays the police officer, will be replaced by Brandon Lambert, joining the show's tour.