SAN DIEGO — A whiff of mystery mingles with the aroma of chicken Florentine at the Imperial Restaurant in Hillcrest.
Will private eye Rick, who likes to be known as Just Plain Rick, discover who killed powerful tycoon Andrei Gauvreau?
Will Just Plain Rick be distracted from his investigation of several shady characters by that sphinx of a minx, Sheila Wonderly?
Will he be helped or hindered by the audience? Will dinner continue even if the actor who happens to be your waiter gets shot?
And will novice producer Julia Holladay make a go of the latest branch of the Boston-based Murder Mystery Cafe here in San Diego?
So far the answers are yes, yes, yes, yes and most emphatically yes.
Holladay, former director and vice president of the Learning Annex, recently made back her investment after two months of operation.
"First (in May), it sold out every night," reported Holladay on the phone from her office at the Imperial House. "Then, there was a lull in June. Then, I don't know what happened, but we've been selling out."
What happened seems to be that San Diegans have discovered an appetite for murder mystery dinner theater--a theatrical form that has never played this city on a weekly basis before.
The waiters and waitresses double as the actors in "Murder at Cafe Noir." In between dishing out four courses, they dish up a farcically convoluted plot satirizing old detective films. Most of the action takes place in a performance area.
One minute, the "waiters" are asking whether you want more coffee, the next, the same people, as actors, may be asking you whether they should burn a mysterious envelope without reading its contents.
But, as charming as this fast and funny little satire is, the customers are not coming in for the play alone.
That's no aspersion on the artful direction by Thomas Vegh and the colorful performances by John Rosen as Rick, Melissa Harte as the hot-to-trot Sheila Wonderly and Eileen Ivey as Madame Tourneau, the mysterious owner of Cafe Noir.
There is no question that, if this script were mounted on a stage without a dinner or audience interaction, it would not be playing this long.
So do they come for the dinner, or for the opportunity to be teased by the actors who treat them as if they are customers in the bar that Rick frequents? Or to tell Rick whether he should burn or read the secret letter he finds, or to guess who the killer really is?
For all these reasons and more, they come. And they come back with friends.
In response to the demand, Holladay, who had been offering two shows a week in her 120-seat house, said she will be offering three mystery dinners this month: one on Fridays at 8 p.m. and two on Saturdays, at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
She is already examining new Mystery Cafe scripts she is thinking of introducing:
* A Chris-Mystery script, also known as the Kris Kringle Capers, in December.
* And "Last Chance in Death Valley," where the setting is a pump and grill in Nevada.
David Goldstein, the president of the 2 1/2-year-old Murder Mystery Cafe, said on the phone from his Boston office that San Diego has proved to be his most successful market to date. That's compared to the nine other cities his company is playing in, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Washington, Dallas and Providence, R.I.
Goldstein produced his first mystery at an 80-seat tavern in Cambridge, Mass. The show took off immediately, he said, and now he calculates that his company, which gets a royalty on each patron, brings in about 50,000 people a year.
He has even been able to maintain simultaneous murder mystery theaters in Boston, Braintree and Cambridge, three cities relatively close to each other.
But why the growing interest in interactive theaters? Goldstein will tell you simply that the shows are entertaining.
They are that, but ask Goldstein's main scriptwriter, David Landau, the author of "Murder at Cafe Noir" the same question, and he will tell you that the growing interest in interactive mysteries--an interest he shares with a passion--is also a sign of the times.
Landau relates the growing popularity of the form to the increasing hunger people have for connection in an increasingly impersonal environment.
"It's become a very anti-social world," he said on the phone from his New York home, where he was working on his newest script.
"People commute, they work on personal computers, they watch TV and VCRs--where's the interaction?
"Man is a herding animal. He's not meant to be isolated. . . . It's refreshing to have someone acknowledge you exist and make you feel part of a group experience. You're no longer a nameless, faceless watcher. The actor is talking to you."