Tuesday, October 15, 1996


Murder Mystery Dinner, a New Thrill

LOOKING AHEAD by Wally Dobelis

It is one of the community services of this column to regale you with new or unusual experiences that we have had, so that you know what to expect when similar ones come your way.

Some weeks ago we attended a murder mystery dinner, one of these things we read about, events that are staged on luxury liners and in big resorts. This one was upstate, a benefit for a youth center (hint, hint, fund raisers), held in the banquet hall of a local restaurant, Alfie's in Ancramdale.

It featured S. Ben Sanguedolce's Alibi Players in The Three Faces of Murder, and the playbill was totally silent of authorship, roles and actors. After a cash bar reception - we met, unexpectedly, and sat with Sheila and Joe Gosler of Friends Seminary - a private detective type announcer, looking a bit like Tracy (Dick, not Spencer) told us that the play would take place throughout the buffet dinner, that there would be a murder between main course and dessert, and to look for actors in the audience, Successful guessers identifying the culprit would be rewarded. He invited volunteers, and some 15 of us actors manque were chosen - there was no dearth of participants - and given sealed envelopes with instructions, with the admonition to mingle, tell our stories and not to embroider too much. Mine told me that I am Dr. Robert Singleman, Claudette and Peter's marriage counsellor, who stopped seeing Claudette face to face after she took off all her clothes in my office and tried to seduce me. Wimpy, but correct, that's me. The note also instructed me to put on my name tag immediately and get to work.

Instructions obeyed, all of us actors and laypersons lined up for the sumptuous buffet, (one of the real attractions, because each major local restaurant was supplying its specialty) only to be stopped in our tracks by a large self-announced psychiatrist woman wo asked for our cooperation in making an easy evening for her patient Claudette, a cutie in a backless dress, who "suffers from a multiple personality disorder" and might make a nuisance of herself with all and sundry throughout the night. This announcement elicited a protest from Phillip, Claudette's fiancee (the Peter of my instructions was history, according to what developed), then the three actors withdrew to their table and we were free to get back to collecting food, reading each other's badges and swapping our stories. It evolved, through conversations, that Claudette had a day job as a vice president at Ethan Allen, selling furniture, while doubling as a stripper in not one but two night clubs, and volunteering as a children's librarian on weekends. Wow!

The buffet dinner was eaten practically in shifts, people were walking from table to table, mingling and talking. Earnest sleuths from the audience interested in winning the promised prizes were stopping us, the badges, and quizzing us - after all, there appeared to be 17 possible murderers (an inventive person suggested that there were ringers among the volunteer actors) - while Claudette, at her table, kept going through rapid personality changes, first doing seductive things while eating her sexy ribs and lasagna dinner, then wrapping herself up and acting modest, or reverting to normal and denying all the extravagant behavior we charged her with. Philip too kept denying it all, and we doctors - there were five of us in the play - kept inventing plausible psychobabble. Very few spectators had the strength of character to stay aloof at their tables and not mingle, ask questions and offer solutions.

When everyone had eaten, the large stage shrink lady (she turned out to be an ex-Vilhelmina model) stepped up and asked us volunteers to tell or read off our stories. I was first, chronologically, and Claudette came forth to hug me and offer me experiences beyond the dreams of the couch. I was not the only one so honored, alas. Some volunteers were truly entertaining, particularly the unlikely strippers, Claudette's chubby short-skirted co-workers at the sex clubs, her furniture boss Jack Chippendale, the tattooist with whom she exchanged services, and burly Harley Davidson, her bike buddy. The idea of ringers among the volunteers became more plausible, and I kept watching two of them for concealed weapons.

Meanwhile, the Claudette - Philip interaction became more intense, as revelations came forth, and the promised murder took place, in plain sight, expected but nevertheless shocking. The alleged perpetrator was apprehended and examined by the stage detective in much detail and the audience had to fill out questionnaires identifying which personality was the murderer. Oh, well, I gave away the plot.

It was not an easy decision because of the miscues spread throughout the action by the professional actors. When the Dick Tracy lookalike PI announced the guilty party, it seemed to be a bit of surprise, but the reasoning behind the act was simple, impeccable, easily explained and grasped. Ohs and ahs resounded throughout the audience - the majority had followed the miscues. There were a few correct answers, and winners of prizes were determined by lot. A table-mate of ours, from Long Island, who looked like a schoolteacher and quizzed had me and others very seriously, won one of the better prizes, but she did not claim she knew who did it all along. When I asked, she gave me a mysterious smile, fingered the colorful square on her lapel and sailed out. But that was no Secret Service insignia button, just costume jewelry. I guess she was lucky, that's all. And she did not get the Maltese bird, only two free dinners.

As audience participation goes, a murder mystery dinner, or weekend, seems a nice and very effective way to bring people out. The Lenni- Lenape owned Double W Bed and Breakfast and dude ranch in the Poconos I described two weeks ago runs murder weekends (script written by a part-time helper, whose day job is with a local law firm), and the ranch manager and hands participate in another event, a mock railroad holdup with audience participation, to thrill the riders every Sunday between 4th of July and Labor Day on the 10-mile scenic tourist Storebridge Line, which runs from Honesdale to Hawley. Look, all the world's a stage, and all men and women merely players, as stated by Jaques in As You Like It (no, that wisdom did not come from the melancholy Dane).

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