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Mystery Meal : Trends: A look at the interactive dinner-theater productions San Diegans are flocking to.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A flood of interactive mystery dinner theaters has arisen nationwide in recent years, and San Diego is at the vortex.

Four extended-run mystery productions are playing in San Diego County, and local audiences are flocking to see them.

Mystery Cafe is presenting two of them--"Murder at the Cafe Noir” and “Killing Mr. Withers"--on weekend evenings in San Marcos and Hillcrest, respectively. Another local producer, E-T Productions Inc., is staging the interactive drama “Knock ‘Em Dead” on weekend nights on the Reuben E. Lee, off Harbor Island. A fourth show, Murder Mystery Weekend’s “The Westgate Murders,” runs on Saturdays in and around the downtown Westgate Hotel.

Three of the four mystery theaters reviewed here bear close structural similarities. “Cafe Noir,” “Withers” and “Knock ‘Em Dead” all revolve around a murder, and, in all of them, the actors serve as in-character waiters, bringing food to tables as they “leak” clues and offer one-liners. Similarities notwithstanding, each production places a differing emphasis on individual production elements. The end result is three vastly different shows.

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“The Westgate Murders” stands out among its competitors both in form and content. In “Westgate,” theatergoers not only try to solve a murder mystery, they also seek to uncover who the actors are, as the performers remain undercover throughout the bulk of the show. Following are capsule reviews of each production.

“The Westgate Murders” exploits the concept of audience participation to a fascinating, entertaining extreme. This production is the most elaborate, most intriguing and most expensive ($59 per person; the other three are $30 to $35).

For the devoted mystery fan, the somewhat steep fee is worth every penny.

“The Westgate Murders” begins as patrons arrive at the Westgate Hotel. Producer/director/host Kelli Matthews greets visitors at a predetermined site inside, gives everyone a name tag and ushers a group of 50 or so into a meeting room.

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Matthews informs the group: “There is at least one murderer with us tonight. Everyone should take notes, interrogate one another and search for clues in order to find the guilty party.”

Immediately, the fun begins. People playfully strike up conversations with one another, asking about occupations, hobbies and other personal information, all the while trying to figure out if the individuals they’re talking to are telling the truth.

The convention works wonderfully. As you interrogate fellow patrons, they are interrogating you, creating a social yet suspenseful environment. As the mock tension begins to build--BAM!--someone is shot and an undercover detective appears on the scene.

There’s a murder to be solved.

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The detective (Ted Kozlowski) informs the audience that everyone in the area is a suspect, then he leads the group to a dining hall, where an elegant four-course meal is served.

During dinner, clues materialize on top of chairs, next to purses and underneath plates. The detective narrates the action by gathering the clues and sharing them with the audience. After an hour or so, a few of the actors drop their “covers,” get up from their tables and begin performing short scenes as they try to establish their innocence.

At this point, Matthews returns and asks everyone to solve the mystery based on the clues presented. After everyone has submitted their written explanation, the detective reappears and unravels the intricate mystery.

Amazingly, all the clues add up and make perfect sense. An ensemble script-writing team penned “The Westgate Murders,” and the intricate mystery is absolutely spellbinding. The audience member who comes closest to solving the mystery is awarded a prize, but in this show, everyone on hand is the winner. This is an immensely appealing piece of mystery theater.

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“The Westgate Murders” runs indefinitely at 6:30 p.m. Saturdays at the Westgate Hotel downtown. For more information, call 294-CLUE.

Mystery Cafe’s “Murder at the Cafe Noir,” one of last year’s surprise hits, played 100 performances during an eight-month run at the Imperial House restaurant in Hillcrest. The 1940s Bogart-style mystery relocated to San Marcos this spring and has been drawing big crowds to the Lake San Marcos Resort Conference Center ever since.

“Cafe Noir,” written by David Landau and directed by Kimberli A. Davis-Baker, is the longest-running mystery show currently in San Diego County, and with good reason: “Cafe Noir” possesses a strong script, boasts clearly defined characters, and the actors do an excellent job of mingling with the audience without embarrassing them.

The adventure begins upon arrival at the conference center’s Quail Room. Hostess Madame Toureau (Celeste Damron) greets audience members at the front door of the Cafe Noir, a dingy nightclub located on a fictional tropical island. Criminals, cads and other lowlifes--audience included, Toureau tells us--frequent the Cafe Noir.

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A newspaper leaflet, the “Grenadine Inquirer,” rests on each table, and the day’s big story is that island magnate Andre Gauvreau was found dead yesterday. Murder, of course, is not only suspected, it’s a certainty.

One by one, the actor-waiters appear in the cafe and reveal a few clues about themselves in several short scenes. All the while, the audience attempts to figure out whodunit. The structure is simple and effective, and it is easy to be caught up in the mystery. Robert DiClemente plays the Sam Spade-like detective, Rick Archer, with a tough-guy stare, laconic wit and impeccable comic timing. DiClemente also narrates the drama effectively, keeping the audience up on what’s happening in the sometimes-noisy cafe setting.

The other characters are pure Hollywood stereotypes, presented competently by an earnest cast. Julia Fordtner plays the vampish femme fatale Sheila Wonderly with sleazy aplomb; Robin Hood is convincing as Simon Gutterman, a perpetually drunk man of leisure; Kevin Mann is a fun thug with a questionable past and an even more questionable taste in food.

The dinner, incidentally, is reminiscent of airline fare: functional but by no means a drawing card. “Cafe Noir” offers a four-course chicken meal and a vegetarian pasta dish. The meal features a decent salad and a passable entree, but don’t expect much from the soup or dessert. Service, however, is exceptional.

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“Cafe Noir’s” greatest weakness is in its scenic design. The generic meeting hall doesn’t come close to resembling a dingy, tropical nightclub. A strong script and a good cast can only go so far; a few props and set pieces would help create a more appropriate ambience.

“Murder at the Cafe Noir” begins at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through 1991. For more information, call 544-1600.

By contrast, Mystery Cafe’s concurrent mystery dinner production, “Killing Mr. Withers,” features a wonderful set, although it lacks other strengths--most notably a viable script.

Also written by Landau, “Killing Mr. Withers” is set in a remote Death Valley diner called the Last Chance Pump and Grill. Scenic designer Walter Smith transformed a banquet room in the Imperial House restaurant into the prototype ghost-town eatery, complete with rustic wall coverings, Old West memorabilia and a comprehensive run-down flavor.

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Unfortunately, a clever design cannot save Landau’s convoluted script. Neither can Will Roberson’s brisk direction, nor the serviceable, four-course chicken or pasta dinner.

“Withers” would be better-served with the title “Eight Caricatures in Search of an Author.” The plot, such as it is, involves a corrupt, comatose savings and loan banker (Gary Wright) who refuses to die, despite the efforts of almost everyone in the cast. When he finally keels over, the audience is asked to uncover “whodunit, whydunit and howdunit.”

“Whocares?” might be a better question.

Whereas “Cafe Noir” builds to a climax with a series of connected clues and character revelations, “Withers” progresses in a clumsy, random fashion. As a mystery, “Withers” is fairly uninteresting because the clues don’t add up to a logical sequence of events.

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Thankfully, a plucky cast makes the most of the fun. The ensemble goes out of its way to involve the audience in the drama, so much so that it becomes evident that the interaction itself--not the mystery--is the star of the show.

As perky tour guide Sharon Rosen, Patricia Harris Smith is particularly adept at talking to patrons. Wright, the corpse-in-waiting, gets a few laughs but goes overboard with his repeated falling-head-first-on-the-table shtick.

There are two exceptional performances in “Withers,” so consistently funny that they almost make up for the show’s overall lack of intrigue.

William Brooks portrays Kurt, the diner cook who has lost most of his faculties as a result of nearby nuclear weapons testing. Kurt doesn’t go anywhere without his butcher knife, and draws continuous laughs as he struggles to overcome his deficient motor skills.

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Michael Boland delights in the role of drifting dandy Jack Swayne. Boland is at his best working the crowd, tempting the females in the audience with his overt sexual demeanor and departing from the script at every turn to get some laughs.

At one point, Boland spotted a sleeping child at a corner table and deadpanned: “Good show, huh?”

Thanks to Brooks and Boland, the show is passable.

Mystery Cafe presents “Killing Mr. Withers” at 8 p.m. Fridays and at 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, through October. For tickets, call 544-1600.

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“Knock ‘Em Dead,” a mystery production on board the Reuben E. Lee, provides a hearty repast but a somewhat meager drama.

The Reuben E. Lee menu offers three excellent dinner selections--chicken, vegetarian pasta or fresh fish--but very little mystery.

In fact, “Knock ‘Em Dead,” written by Will Roberson and Tom Oldendick, isn’t really a mystery at all. The show is a “you-solve-it” story, meaning that any of six characters can be the guilty party on any given night. The play is scripted so that the audience selects the murderer based on a popular vote conducted near the end of the two-hour show.

This device is intended to attract return audiences, because they won’t see the same show twice, but it actually takes most of the fun out of the sleuthing process. Clues become all but irrelevant, and any sense of mystery is replaced by what becomes essentially a popularity contest. Instead of trying to identify the most likely killer, you try to figure out who everyone else is going to vote for.

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The story revolves around a nightclub talent show at Vinnie’s Belly Laugh Club. Vinnie is nowhere to be found at the start of the show, and, sure enough, he is discovered dead a short while later.

Since plot is so peripheral to this show, characterizations become the evening’s main course. The cast consists of a detective (James Kresser), a body (Don Loper) and six talent-show contestants, all likely culprits.

Stanley Madruga plays a swishy dog trainer with a penchant for finger-snapping. Judy Milstein depicts Roxy Barn, a gruff, intense comedian perpetually looking for laughs. Monty Jordan portrays a hypnotist with a twitch.

Each performance is well textured and solid, but the program doesn’t encourage the audience to follow details closely. Instead, the crowd looks at the costumes, takes note of the exterior mannerisms and is left with nowhere to go.

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“Knock ‘Em Dead” does have some funny moments, and, yes, the actors do bring the food to the tables and interact with the audience, but, unlike the others, there is no true mystery to be solved. And the novelty of talking to a waiter in a funny costume wears off quickly.

A lively, involved crowd is likely to improve the show. On a recent Friday, the audience was fairly stale and unresponsive. Kresser had to pry responses from audience members, many of whom seemed embarrassed and irritated at being dragged into the show.

“Knock ‘Em Dead” runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through November.


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