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Review: Want to play gumshoe? Then ‘Citizen Detective’ at the Geffen is for you

A screen shot of Mike Ostroski and Paloma Nozicka in the Geffen Playhouse online production of "Citizen Detective."
Mike Ostroski is gumshoe Mickie McKittrick and Paloma Nozicka is Zoom crasher Andrea Piedra in the Geffen Playhouse online production “Citizen Detective.”
(Geffen Playhouse)

We’ve officially reached the “why don’t we play detective?” stage of the pandemic.

“Citizen Detective,” the new virtual show produced by the Geffen Playhouse in its Stayhouse series, gathered a group of perfect strangers on Zoom for what amounted to a true-crime version of the game Clue. The audience, capped at 24 participants, seemed willing, though the rules were sometimes a bit fuzzy.

A couple of weeks before the show we were sent a personality survey quiz. This is when I knew I was in trouble.

Critics aren’t joiners. We sit on the aisle for a reason — to escape the crowd at the first opportunity. For special skills, I didn’t know what to write. I was going to put down, “As a theater critic, I know when someone is faking it.” But I didn’t want to come off as threatening to the creative team.

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The purpose of the quiz is to divide the audience into groups. Each group is supplied different information about a suspect in an unsolved 1920s Hollywood murder involving William Desmond Taylor, an actor and director from the silent film era who was found dead in his bungalow, the victim of a shooting. The case, so cold it could store one of the new coronavirus vaccines, has enough intrigue for an army of Miss Marples.

This interactive online whodunit, written and directed by Chelsea Marcantel, enfolds the detective game into a scripted story. The gimmick is that we’ve been enrolled in Mickie McKittrick’s Citizen Detective training session.

From feuding over “Sunset Boulevard” to the bonanza of the “The Producers,” Michael Riedel’s “Singular Sensation” chronicles Broadway in the booming 1990s.

Mickie (Mike Ostroski) — a bearded, dead-eyed gumshoe who takes his work so seriously he looks like he hasn’t laughed in 20 years — instructs his new recruits on the three things a detective must focus on: motive, means and opportunity.

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Mickie’s talk is interrupted by a young woman named Andrea (Paloma Nozicka), a wild card and corker who has crashed his class before. A millennial intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of Zoom, she threatens to hijack the proceedings with her technological knowhow and investigatory zeal.

A generational battle is underway, but before this gets out of hand the audience is split into breakout rooms to tackle different aspects of the case. My group had some difficulty selecting a leader — no one wanted the responsibility. Not having had time to study the material that was emailed 90 minutes before the show, I preferred to remain a fly on the wall. But everyone was required to offer a considered opinion about the case.

I blamed the accountant, which was problematic for two reasons: There was a CPA in my group and, more distressingly, this briefly mentioned character wasn’t even one of the game’s possible suspects.

Mickie’s dead eyes momentarily flared with alarm when my group reported our selection. Thinking outside the box may be useful in real detective work, but it can throw a wrench into a theatrical simulation.

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Geffen Playhouse sets dates and prices for Sri Rao’s cooking show, an interactive murder-mystery and a sequel to Helder Guimarães’ magic hit, “The Present.”

The lesson, I hope, Mickie takes from this experience is that theater critics, with a few exceptions, have no business being enrolled at his training academy. This particular critic wasn’t just tossing out red herrings but was making impolite observations to himself about the way the contrived nature of the scripted show undermined interest in the historical nuts and bolts of the case.

“Citizen Detective” may be too specialized a novelty for the average theatergoer. Just as I wouldn’t care to join an online cosplay festival of superhero characters, I’m not especially eager to test my mettle as an amateur detective.

To judge by the audience at Wednesday’s performance, there are plenty of would-be private eyes out there, but it’s a select society. Enjoy, folks! As for me, I can’t wait to return to my invisible seat at the theater.

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'Citizen Detective'

Where: Presented online by Geffen Playhouse

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 7.

Tickets: Start at $65 (per household)

Info: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes


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