Your dinner companions look suspicious. Is that mild-mannered fellow next to you really a mailman? What about that sleek young woman who says she's a personal secretary? Isn't she just a little too pretty? And do you dare turn your back on those bright-eyed young waiters?
Shades of Sam Spade and Agatha Christie.
At "A Dinner You'll Die For," a theatrical production at Sleuth's Restaurant in Sherman Oaks, you get murder with your mashed potatoes. And it's up to you to find the killer.
About 50 people pay $50 or $60 to gather every Saturday evening in a deceptively cozy, book-lined room with several small dining tables, a marble fireplace, a spooky portrait and a secret passageway. Professional actors are scattered among the guests.
Producer Peggy Phillips, a director and choreographer of a Northern California dance company, moved to Los Angeles 2 1/2 years ago and started her production company, Dial "M" Murder Mysteries, "on a shoestring."
"I came to L.A. where the talent and support was. It took about six months to get going," she said. "I'm new to dinner theater, but I've always been interested in the concept of environmental theater--mixing scripted material with improvisation. And I love the idea of theater and food together."
There's a cocktail hour before you sit down to dine on duck l'orange , swordfish, prime rib or chicken dijon and witness a murder. Phillips, svelte in silver and black, encourages the audience to mingle, grill each other and try to spot the performers in the crowd.
Grilling the Audience
At a recent show, patrons relished the chance to ask each other impertinent and personal questions: Do you get along with your family? Do you handle money in your job? Did you inherit your business? Skepticism prevailed. Very few of those in attendance believed anything they heard, and many people has a terrific time fibbing throughout the evening.
A plethora of self-proclaimed investment counselors, bankers and lawyers were present. The woman in white looked like an actress . . . and so did the handsome man in the tuxedo, but identities were up for grabs. Besides, there was more than one tuxedo in the room; dress for the event is semi-formal.
When an actor met sudden death during the meal, the crowd began to discover who was whom. But, even when dinner--and the drama--was about to end, a few questions remained unanswered. Was that man in the tux an actor . . . or just a guest with a sense of style? Was the evening really over?
The production is not for those who take their mystery-solving--or their theater--seriously. Josef Pilato, Curtis Buttenheim, Patti Negri, Rand MacPherson, and Michael Morano make up the appealing cast, but the show is loose and played for laughs, with cartoon action and humor that's corny, scatological, anatomical and blue. The plot is solvable, but silly.
In the interests of fair play, no details of said plot, nor the character's names, shall be revealed here--with one exception:
Investigative officer Lt. Columbus just happened to stop in the restaurant to use the phone--"if I'm late and I don't call, my wife gets crazy." Cloaked in rumpled raincoat, with all the gestures down pat, Pilato played the Peter Falk role to the hilt. He questioned the witnesses (the audience) and the suspects and paced back and forth, doing a series of grandes jetes over the victim sprawled on the floor.
After he advised everyone to remain in the room pending further questioning, Columbus went to the kitchen for a salami sandwich, the body was trundled away on a serving cart, and dinner continued. Further revelations came with each course.
Finally, over dessert and coffee, all the clues were laid out for examination, and the guests were given paper, pencils and 13 minutes to solve the crime.
Those who sorted through the confusion to come up with the correct answer won a prize (a T-shirt that reads "Dial 'M' Murder Mysteries") and the cast then returned to explain the whodunit. Burdened by burlesque touches added to the already campy proceedings--one victim dies, slowly, as Blanche DuBois, another as Edith and Archie Bunker--the re-enactment seemed to dissipate the evening's playful energy. Nonetheless, Frank Dee, a chef from Australia whose business card had somehow ended up in the dead man's jacket, said, "I never saw anything like it. It was wonderful."
Terry Mansky, whose wife Karen surprised him with the show for his birthday, and who was one of the two out of 50 who figured the whole thing out correctly, said he had the solution halfway through the evening. "The secret is not to get hung up on the micro-details," he advised.
Gary Ginsburg of Encino liked the food and thought Pilato was excellent, but said "the play was misleading" and didn't involve him as much as he'd like, while Daniel Deal, another birthday celebrant, was pleased.