Theatergoers get two leading men for the price of one with “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” a deliciously dark comic musical in which vicious slayings are played for laughs in elegant Edwardian England. Starring Jefferson Mays (“I Am My Own Wife”) and Bryce Pinkham (this summer’s “Love’s Labours Lost”), it’s now open at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
“A Gentleman’s Guide …” is based on a 1907 story by British writer Roy Horniman, later turned into a black comedy with Alec Guinness. This update, by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), owes a debt to both the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and “Downton Abbey.”
The story begins in a London prison cell, where Monty Navarro (Pinkham), the ninth and current Earl of Highhurst, is preparing a journal entry in the guide of the title, a record of events he deems necessary because “no one ever really tells the truth about himself.”
Bringing the journal to life, Monty steps from the prison into the parlor of a rundown Clapham flat. It’s now sometime earlier, and the down-on-his-luck, though quite debonair outcast has just learned he is a long-lost member of the noble D'Ysqutihs (pronounced DIE-skwiths). He could, in fact, become an earl, save for the complication of eight aristocrats — six men and two women — before him in line for the title.
“A Gentleman’s Guide …” devotes the first act to the farcical ways in which Monty dispatches all but one of those heirs, each essayed by quick-change artist Mays, who previously navigated 37 roles in “I Am My Own Wife,” which brought him a 2004 Tony.
As the Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, Mays is pushed from a church steeple, a bloody scene with Hitchcockian overtones.The murders go on like that, satisfying stand-alone moments that allow Mays to do what he does best: rush backstage, jump into the next costume and play scenes to the hilt. They’re delectable schadenfreude. You'll thrill in seeing him bring boundless energy and distinct personalities to his assorted D'Ysquiths of either gender.
Pinkham, as well, achieves a tall order, remaining perfectly likable, though his character is committing nefarious acts.
There are, here, two leading ladies, as well: Lisa O’Hare and Lauren Worsham both make lovely Broadway debuts, O’Hare as Sibella, Monty’s mistress, and Worsham, a soprano from New York City Opera, as Phoebe, his fiancee (and cousin, but don’t overthink it).
O’Hare, in particular, is enchanting as a woman who chooses security over love, but is filled with jealousy when the man she keeps on the side turns his attention to another woman. “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” which has Phoebe interrupting one of their liaisons, is a humorously choreographed example of the trouble with love triangles.
Director Darko Tresnjak, of Hartford Stage (where “A Gentleman’s Guide …” played a year ago), keeps matters moving apace, even if you approach the second act with trepidation: now that we’re low on people to murder, where will the laughs fit in? Fret not, as we have the denizens of Highhurst Castle — go ahead, “Downton” fans, just try not to think of it as Highclere Castle — a warring couple played by Mays as Lord Adalbert, Monty’s last obstacle, and Joanna Glushak, chewing on scenery in the best of ways, as wife Lady Eugenia.
The music and lyrics aren’t the most memorable you’ve heard, but they’re engaging. Two high points are “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” which has Lord Adalbert lamenting: “The lives they lead/Of want and need/I should think it would be a bore.” “Better with a Man,” a homoerotic duet between fey Henry D’Ysquith (Mays, again) and an along-for-the-ride Monty, is another pleaser.
The set, by Alexander Dodge, is a stage-within-a-stage, with lush red fabrics and proscenium arches. It has the effect of making the brutal events seem far, far away, like something you're watching in a snow globe.
If it’s escapism you’re out for, and you also take pleasure from the suffering of others — after pushing through Times Square to get to a theater during the holidays, you very well may — “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” has the trappings of a fun, lightweight night out. Like many two-for-one offers, it’s a rewarding proposition.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” with an open-ended run at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Tickets: $50-$147. Call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn