Getting Away With Murder : Theater: Audience participation mysteries are making a killing with amateur sleuths. But doing a little investigating never hurts.

Halloween isn't just for kids anymore. The line between creative partying and theater is becoming blurred as adults continue to shed their inhibitions and dress up in their favorite fantasy. The closest real theater gets to this is "Tamara" and "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," where audiences can fantasize themselves as a character even on nights when the ghosts aren't out.

But there's a popular phenomenon presenting Halloween's theater-meets-party spirit all year round. Audience-participation murder mysteries are a healthy cottage industry that provides a crowd with dinner, a chance to sleuth out the culprit and a show in which you can be inches from the actors--if you can spot them.

Generally at or near sellouts, these shows are a favorite with upscale would-be Sherlocks, fans of environmental theater, people looking for an alternative to the VCR and an occasional corporation seeking a little diversion from a humdrum employees' seminar. (Shows range from evening events at $50 to $70, to weekend excursions at more than $200 per person.) Since these whodunits with all the trimmings emerged four years ago in the wake of "Tamara's" success, Halloween has been to the shows' producers what the day after Christmas is to department stores.

They might be terrific parties, but are they terrific theater? We visited five to investigate: Dial "M" Murder Mysteries' "A Dinner You'll Die For," Murder Mystery Weekend's "Murder at Yamashiro" and their San Diego weekend trek, Sparkle Production's "Medium Murder" and "The Laguna Baron."

It seemed possible only in Los Angeles: Park the car in the garage catacombs of the Sherman Oaks Galleria, track down a restaurant called Sleuth's wedged inside the mall, sit down in a banquet room decked out like a study out of Arthur Conan Doyle, discover that one of your neighbors is both an L.A. cop and Jonathan Winters' road manager, then watch an actor (Josef Pilato) as he bursts in doing a perfect Columbo impersonation.

Impressive, and "A Dinner You'll Die For" was only beginning. Unlike most murder mysteries, this one, by host and Dial "M" producer Peggy Phillips, keeps the audience at the dinner table. There's a bit of pre-dinner mixing, and the inevitable huddle around the "clue table," but this is as close to a play as these shows get.

That's not only because we're sitting down, but because a solid script is being played, with Pilato's Lt. Columbus at the center. It's therefore not a problem that most of the actors are fairly easy to spot--although several suspected the two guests claiming to be a cop and a theater critic. The plot and performances are up front, without many gimmicks.

There are some. A wall becomes a door, Phillips and the waiter do some heavy petting on the side that has some Sleuth's regulars turning their head, and the actors indulge in a few too many TV character impersonations.

But the plot hangs things together. On this Saturday night, though, only one out of an audience of 40 cracked the case: Floyd Riggle, who ironically claimed to prefer science fiction to mysteries. He added, "This was much better than other mysteries I've seen."

Certainly, Sleuth's steak kebab and lemon-herb chicken was light years ahead of the bland chicken teriyaki served up at Murder Mystery Weekend's "Murder at Yamashiro"--a big factor at murder mysteries, since they are essentially exotic dinner theater. Things will no doubt be spiced up tonight, with a special Halloween edition of the show. The particular "Murder" I saw was not even terribly exotic.

The setup--after drinks and appetizers--is a clumsily staged art auction and murder, then the unbelievably instant appearance of the investigating cop, who happens to be here on vacation from San Francisco (Garret Pearson). We're peering at a list of "suspects," and notice some familiar names on it--like our own.

The less-sober partygoers either ate this up, or loudly interrupted Lt. Pearson at every opportunity. This requires real improvising skills for an actor to cope, at which Pearson's an old hand. The rest of us were getting hungry.

That's a problem at Yamashiro. But the sleuthing gets involving, especially when you put two and two together and realize that you're sitting next to a murderer. Murder Mystery Weekend productions, run by Margo and Keith Morrison, have two wonderful things going for it: a sly knack for blending the actors with the audience, and lots of juicy clues, some of which even rhyme.

So while Dial "M" shows borrow from familiar sleuths (not only Columbo, but Inspector Clouseau, Batman and '40s gumshoes), Murder Mystery Weekend goes for the form and style of Agatha Christie. The Japanese garden atmosphere at Yamashiro is as much a part of the evening as any sudden murder (they're always sudden), just like the train ride is half the fun of the all-weekend adventures.

These are Murder Mystery Weekend's specialty, and after four years of doing them, the ride is smooth. Our train headed for San Diego and the elegant Christie-like Westgate Hotel. Before we disembarked, Lt. Pearson had shot a fleeing gunman.

In this case, some of the actors were so good, and so innocent-sounding, that we could only admire them after their characters had been knocked off. Others were too obviously there for that age-old technique of mystery writing: misdirection. As a dinner companion said over a huge dish of cherries jubilee, "Keep listening, but don't listen to the phonies."

Another favorite motto is: Trust no one. Even the waiters could be culpable, which makes murder mystery shows one of the few chances for actors to wait tables and not feel they're out of work.

Unlike the evening affairs, a weekend allows time for some funny, unscripted things to happen. At the Westgate, ballroom dancer Richard Crouteau and his girlfriend Julie Sekiya arrived late, immediately arousing everyone's suspicions. Two train passengers had already claimed that they were ballroom dancers. Mebe Holmboe, an audience member and persistent amateur sleuth, had earlier pointed out that they didn't have dancers' physiques. The crowd challenged Crouteau and Sekiya to prove their identities, which led to them doing a nice dance routine right in the middle of the Westgate lobby.

After that, some might have felt that the plot was anticlimactic (I had to leave after Saturday breakfast). But mystery fans like Diane Hinds and Nadine and Jack Lowry felt like they were getting their money's worth.

Not so for Nancy Cipriano and Jay Kocen, who came with their dates to Oscar's restaurant/bar on Sunset Boulevard for "Medium Murder," staged by Sparkle Productions. Kocen had the notion that the show, involving a psychic who can see beyond the grave (Anne Klarner), would have some eerie mysticism, "but I missed the mood of a seance." Cipriano agreed: "I've enjoyed other murder mysteries, but not this one. When we asked the characters for their backgrounds so we could piece the puzzle together, the actors couldn't come up with anything."

Meaning, they couldn't improvise very well. And since improvising is much of the fun at a murder mystery, "Medium Murder" becomes an uncomfortable night out.

Like "Dinner You'll Die For," you don't roam around, but unlike the spacious Sleuth's, the cramped space at Oscar's barely allows the actors moving room. The plot is thick enough to keep the guessing game alive, and "Tamara's" uninhibited sex maniacs are echoed in "Medium's" rampant bitchiness. But with sluggish pacing, the show, after lots of purple passion, barely gets across the finish line (Earl Boen directed; Boen and hostess Carole Kean co-wrote).

All the mysteries reviewed abound in sex jokes, except one: "The Laguna Baron," perhaps the most "environmental" of the bunch. Starting at a lovely Laguna Beach bookstore, Upchurch-Brown Booksellers, Julio Martinez's "Chinatown"-influenced script unravels a tale that takes us to the Laguna post office, the Aquarius Gallery and Le Petit Gourmet, a countrified French restaurant. Like all good mysteries, "The Laguna Baron" ends where it began, in the bloodstained Upchurch-Brown bookstacks.

That isn't to suggest this is a bloody show. Robert Brown, co-owner of the bookstore, said that he and Le Petit Gourmet owner Jules Swimmer, in desiring a Saturday night entertainment that would show off both of their establishments, wanted less violence and more intrigue--plus several dashes of local Laguna history.

They commissioned Martinez after approving his submitted idea. The result, as one might expect in a Mediterranean atmosphere, is more stately and less frenzied than the average sleuth's night out.

The conflicts--bad, old feelings between two journalists, dangerous jealousies and some surgical plotting--are more interesting than the skin-deep characters, none of it helped by some excessive one-liner banter. Beware, though, when you query the suspects during dinner (chicken, yet again, but delicately roasted): director Sorrell Wayne's cast improvise tall tales faster than you can say, "More wine, please."

For more information contact: Dial "M" Murder Mysteries (818) 953-4256; Murder Mystery Weekend (818) 785-7700; Sparkle Productions (213) 278-7712; "The Laguna Baron" (714) 497-9742.

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