On the Phone With Joe Kinosian
On the Phone With Joe Kinosian
Actor/singer/writer/composer/pianist: Joe Kinosian is a man of many parts. And in Murder for Two, the hit Off-Broadway musical comedy whodunit he co-authored with Kellen Blair and in which he now appears, he takes on many, many more, playing every suspect in the murder investigation. He’s the victim’s widow and mistress, a shrink, a feisty older couple, a 9-year-old boy. Audience heads may be spinning with each lightning-fast, uproarious change in persona, but, offstage, in conversation, Kinosian is anything but the wacky schizophrenia he portrays so well. Calm, cool, thoughtful and quick to laugh, he is sanity itself. Just don’t let your cellphone go off when he’s onstage. Everyone has a hot button, and that’s his.
FL: You wrote the music and co-authored the book, but you’re also in the show. Is there a temptation during a performance to rewrite your own script or a piece of music? Embellish a bit? Improvise on the spot?
JK: [laugh] Well, not to be too much of a killjoy, there isn’t a lot of actual improv in the show. There’s definitely some leeway though. I mean it’s different from other plays, I guess, in that if someone’s phone goes off in the audience, you can directly turn to them and start screaming at them. You can’t do that in The Coast of Utopia. Yeah, I mean, I don’t plan on changing the script much. It’s littler things, like yelling at the audience when a phone goes off. There’s some free rein to make up lines depending on the kind of audience you have that night. There’s also some freedom with the blocking, like when the fireman shows up at the 11th hour and is a crazy unexpected addition to the cast. I would think any actor stepping into the roles of the suspects would definitely be remiss if he slipped up on the opportunity to really make them his own.
FL: But, as an author, does it drive you crazy if you attend a performance and an actor doesn’t do or say exactly what you’ve put down on the page?
JK: You really caught me with that one. [laugh] Yes and no. Let’s just say this: There are definitely actors out there who are so smart and imaginative that they will come up with something better than what I have. In that regard, it’s always collaboration. But I guess the short answer to your question is yes. [laugh]
FL: So, what does Joe, the actor, think of Joe, the playwright?
JK: Well, Joe, the actor, thinks that Joe, the playwright, wrote very well for his strengths. As a writer, it’s impossible not to think like an actor. You’re always thinking how an actor will interpret your stuff. The lines have to be written how a person or character would say them, and they have to be what he or she would say in a given situation. In that regard, Joe, the actor, would say that Joe, the playwright, really gets actor Joe’s sense of humor and gets his penchant for non sequiturs and for surrealist slapstick comedy. That’s a good question, and I think I could probably come up with a better response, if I had a little more time.
FL: When you and Kellen Blair [book writer and lyricist] got together to write Murder for Two, were you in the same room at the same time or did you each go your separate ways?
JK: I think the best stuff came when we were together. I remember a large section, the feisty old couple, Murray and Barb. Kellen and I were at the Hungarian Pastry Shop by Columbia [University]. We were at a table in the back. I forget who was who, but we both just assumed a role and wrote the lines as they came. And they’ve changed very little since that first time. That was a time when it was beneficial to be together and be the writer assuming the actor’s hat, trying out what would be fun, what would make sense or not make sense in a good way. There was definitely a lot of that kind of collaboration. When we started writing the song “Protocol Says,” which was the first song we wrote, we were at my piano, and we had a fun time wondering what kind of music a really logical person, but a really logical person who also loves show tunes, would sound like. That he would sound like a computer. This guy receives information and then outputs information, but doesn’t interpret too much along the way. Kellen was there nudging me and like, “a little bit like this, a bit more like a typewriter.” The book was very collaborative. We handed it back and forth, and back and forth. We’d rewrite drafts and send them back and forth. It’s now at the point where we don’t know who wrote which lines because we both had a hand in all of them. Music and lyrics are fairly separate, I have to say. Together, we discuss and discuss and discuss the idea of what the song is going to accomplish, what it is going to feel like, what information needs to be conveyed through it. But then I’ll definitely step aside, do my music and come up with a draft. We’ll go over it, change what needs to be changed, pick up a note or add one. I’ll say that line isn’t as funny as it might be, and we’ll adjust accordingly. Then we’ll have a reading, and no one will laugh, and we’ll write a new song. [laugh]
FL: You obviously have a great partnership going. What makes it work so well?
JK: There’s no way to talk about it that doesn’t make it sound like a marriage. [laugh] I mean, anything I’m going to say is going to sound like a cliché definition of what makes a successful marriage. You have to compromise. [laugh] You have to support your partner, and you have to respect your partner. Where writing is concerned, specifically, you have to do what’s best for the play and not push your own agenda. That comes up all the time. It’s like, “Am I forcing the fight here because I want to win the fight or is it really the best idea for the play?” I think we’ve gotten better and better about doing that. We’ve definitely been tested by things and definitely have had challenges. I think all of that truly has reaffirmed how much we enjoy working together and love each other’s work. We get each other’s sense of humor. We know what we’re trying to do. It’s fun to be the two people in the room, who really understand each other.
FL: Once the curtain is up, you—Joe, the actor—are on for 90 minutes straight. Has anything wacky or amusing happened in performance?
JK: I have a good one for you. This was in San Francisco. We were doing our final performance in San Francisco, Halloween 2010, and a woman answers her phone. She’s sitting way in the back of the theater, and it’s a big theater, like a 400-seat theater. She comes way to the front of the stage, where there’s an exit and where, I guess, she got better reception. Downstage right of where Marcus [the policeman investigating the murder] is just collapsed because he’s admitted he’s not actually a detective. It’s one of the few moments of silence in the play, and she’s down there, hanging out by the exit door, talking and talking. She was one of the donors to the theater, so I guess she thought she owned the place. We [actors] couldn’t go on [with the show] because it was too distracting. So, I hopped down from the stage [in character] as the widow Dahlia and grabbed the phone out of her hand and said, “She’s going to have to call you back. There’s been a horrible murder,” and showed the woman on her way. Afterward, I found her in the lobby. We had it out a little bit and discussed proper theater protocol. I hope she learned her lesson. I’d just like to say to all the other [Editor’s note: name withheld to protect the not so innocent] out there, “Don’t you dare answer your phone [when I’m onstage].”
FL: Protocol says.
JK: This woman had quite a chip on her shoulder. That whole cellphone thing in the show came from real life. I don’t know whether it was me the actor or me the writer or both of us, but I just hate when people even pull out their phones to check the time during the show. It’s not just bad for the actor; it’s bad for other audience members.
FL: You’ve talked about Murray, Barb and Dahlia. Do you have a favorite character in the play, one that is especially close to your heart?
JK: When I did the show for seven months in Chicago, it was constantly changing. I’m sure it will happen here [New York]. You start to favor a certain character and want them to win, particularly on a given night. But Dahlia, I think, has and always will be closest to my id. In tone, you’d have to compare her to a Homer Simpson, the person who says what they feel and doesn’t think too hard about the repercussions. I love that. I love everything about the way she interacts, the way she’s trying so hard to get jokes to land but no one in the room is having it. I just love that.
FL: If you had to choose between writing, composing and acting, which would it be?
JK: All of them. How about props? I’ve always wanted to do props.
FL: Your next career move?
JK: Exactly. I love a good prop design. And I particularly like our prop designer because she had no real opportunity to do anything super creative until the suitcase full of body parts, and then she really went to town on that. I was very inspired by her work.
FL: She does a mean boa, too.
JK: Is that props? Or costumes? If I had a master’s in props, I would know the difference.
>> Murder for Two, New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., 212.239.6200
The play’s run has been extended—again; tickets are now on sale thru July 6.
(1) Brett Ryback (left) and Joe Kinosian (right) in Murder for Two, Joan Marcus
(2) Joe Kinosian (left) and Brett Ryback (right) accompany themselves on the Steinway, Joan Marcus