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Bryan Fenkart and Heath Calvert in Itamar Moses’ “Nobody Loves You,” at Second Stage through August 11. | JOAN MARCUS
Bryan Fenkart and Heath Calvert in Itamar Moses’ “Nobody Loves You,” at Second Stage through August 11. | JOAN MARCUS

Talk about low-hanging fruit –– satirizing reality TV. It’s obvious and easy, and perhaps because of that it could go terribly wrong as engaging theater. Yet Itamar Moses has managed to make a thoroughly entertaining evening out of it in the new musical “Nobody Loves You,” now at Second Stage. He brings intelligence, good humor, and wit to what, despite its often frivolous antics, also makes a sober commentary on our culture, the drive for fame, and the incessant need for attention that characterizes our time –– whether in the tabloids, on talks shows, or in Twitter feeds that sometimes have barely a dozen followers.

Jeff is a graduate student in philosophy who has no patience for the titular reality show beloved by his girlfriend Tanya. When she leaves him to go audition for the show, he auditions too as a way to win her back. Because Jeff disdains the show openly, the producers think he’s ratings gold, and so on he goes. Tanya isn’t chosen. The rest of the plot concerns the doings of the contestants as they’re eliminated after, you guessed it, America has voted that nobody loves them. Jeff soon finds himself sucked into the competition, learning that even he is not immune to the lure of fame. He also finds himself in an off-camera romance with Jenny, an assistant producer.

When complications ensue, the audience is left to ponder what reality is and whether it is anything more than a philosophical construct, whether –– that is –– reality is simply what we make it. This may seem heady for such a bright and charming musical, but that’s exactly the point. Moses’ philosophical exploration gives a context to the stock characters that populate the show and makes them both interesting and sympathetic.

Philosophy, reality, and murder gone wrong in two new musicals

Gaby Alter’s music and lyrics are slick, of the moment, and completely appropriate for the piece. A knowing superficiality, with integration of concepts like hashtags, complements Moses’ book.

The cast is uniformly good, particularly Bryan Fenkart as Jeff who plays it too clever by half but also reveals a vulnerable heart. Fenkart has a surprising and versatile voice and will be someone to watch. Lauren Molina plays sex-addled contestant Megan with complete abandon, showing another side to her usual impressive soprano. Leslie Kritzer in multiple roles, including Tanya, shines in all of them, particularly as the soulless producer. Heath Calvert is hilarious as the show host who knows only what is said into his ear, and Aleque Reid is terrific as Jenny, the “real” girl Jeff ultimately falls for. Rory O’Malley is hilarious in a variety of roles, particularly Evan, the loyal, always-tweeting fan of the show who happens to be Jenny’s roommate.

Director Michelle Tattenbaum has deftly balanced the heartfelt and the absurd, and Mandy Moore –– no stranger to the form from her choreography on “So You Think You Can Dance” –– has created bright, energetic, and totally contemporary choreography.

In the 16th century, Shakespeare strove to hold a mirror up to nature in a theater that held a few hundred. In the 21st, that mirror is more likely a camera, and millions tune in. The result is the same. As humans, we seem programmed to ponder the nature of reality and the meaning of existence. That seems timeless and if rather than a meditation at Yorick’s grave you get a sexy number in a hot tub along with your ontology, is that necessarily a bad thing?

That depends. Were it not for the technical proficiency of the gifted two-member cast, the new musical “Murder for Two” at Second Stage Uptown would be completely intolerable. Instead, this clumsy, unoriginal, and thoroughly bush-league would-be murder mystery/ comedy/ vaudeville act is a crashing bore happily relieved by some top-notch piano playing.

There is absolutely nothing in the book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair that we haven’t seen before. The premise is that there’s been a murder in some mansion and a detective is dispatched to solve the crime. In this case, the works get gummed up because the gumshoe, played by Brett Ryback, is really just a beat cop pretending to be a detective in hopes of getting a promotion. All the suspects are played by one actor, Jeff Blumenkrantz. That’s the gimmick, and as fast on his feet as Blumenkrantz is, the characters are all stereotypes — the dotty matron, the smart but ditzy ingénue, the aging ballerina, the shrill married couple. And so on. It all seems like a lesser episode of “Murder, She Wrote.”

Blumenkrantz can only give the most general indications of characters because that’s all one can do with this type of manic material, but it quickly becomes merely mechanical and, of course, there is the “hilarious” prospect that the two men might kiss when Blumenkrantz is playing one of the women. (Harvey Korman and Tim Conway used this shtick, too, on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Ask your parents.)

Kinosian’s music isn’t particularly memorable outside of being heavily influenced by Cy Coleman (“Sweet Charity,” “City of Angels”). One could crib from worse, but Blair’s lyrics aren’t much, so the score ends up being undistinguished.

As to Blumenkrantz and Ryback, however, they are the reason you should struggle to resist bolting. The two play well off each other, and while Blumenkrantz does most of the heavy lifting –– such as tap dancing on his knees when he’s a tough, but loveable street kid and otherwise flailing and flopping about –– Ryback plays the straight man. The two switch off at the keyboard with great dexterity and sometimes to comic effect, and when they play together, the show rouses itself from its derivative and sophomoric concept and becomes entertaining. The extended piece the two men play together at the end of the show is the highlight of the evening. Too bad it comes so long after rigor mortis has set in.

NOBODY LOVES YOU | Second Stage Theater | 305 W. 43rd St. | Through Aug. 11; Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$84 at 2st.com or 212-246-4422

MURDER FOR TWO | McGinn/ Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76th St. | Through Aug. 25; Mon.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. | $54 at 2st.com or 212-246-4422

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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