Here was the real mystery: What the hell was I doing here? I’d rather give up National Public Radio than be caught dead at a murder mystery dinner theater—or perhaps that would be the only condition under which I ever thought I’d willingly participate in one.
Covering the latest contemporary art show or the hippest manifestation of street culture is my style. Murder mystery dinner theater? Not so much. It isn’t hip. That much I knew. It lies somewhere between vaudeville and musicals, and is more entertaining than inspired. For my first experience—despite trying to disguise my dread with a notepad and micro-cassette recorder—I fell into the kicking-and-screaming variety of attendees.
So along with my companion—who met the key qualifications of 1. having been to such an event before and 2. being available and willing—I set out to the Shalamar Reception Center in Murray. Shalamar now serves as the semi-regular home of Hunt Mysteries, one of the primary purveyors of these events in the Salt Lake metro area. True to its name, the Shalamar evokes cheap perfume, Las Vegas weddings, disco and Arabian Nights. I hadn’t seen so much stucco since 1978.
Many of the 80-some patrons gathering in the lobby on a Friday weren’t certain what had drawn them to the Shalamar that evening. Some thought murder mystery dinner theater might be a nice change from “dinner and a movie”; others hoped it would be “mentally-challenging”; still others were merely along for the ride.
The moment of truth came as glass doors parted and everyone filed in. The fourth wall between actor and audience disappeared as curiosity and wariness overcame me. Either that or suddenly we were trapped inside four walls with nowhere to hide.
Hunt Mysteries is currently running Vinnie’s Wake, if not a take-off on the successful off-Broadway hit Tony and Tina’s Wedding then definitely in the same famiglia. While I wasn’t expecting all “Hail Marys” and Stromboli, I have been to Italy and to New York and watch The Sopranos, so when greeted by unidentifiable accents, I threw my friend a knowing look.
An actress dressed not unlike a can-can girl, feathers and all, shot out her hand. “Allo, cousin. So pleeezed to seee you!” My friend and I giggled.
“So sorry for your loss!” I chimed with a broadly European flare, and we quickly found our assigned table.
Little did I realize that Vinnie’s Wake is a multicultural event. The cast of characters includes the titular Vinnie’s Italian widow; his French mistress; his garment-wearing sister-in-law; his cross-dressing, wannabe Latino brother; and a Catholic priest so sauced that he has lost his Irish accent. In the spirit of the affair, I convince my tablemates that my friend is my estranged, sky-diving husband. They are also certain that I—with my notepad and micro-cassette recorder—must be some kind of murder mystery pro. The demographic cross-section is purposely absurd, and as unlikely as Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard inhabiting the same universe.
But reality is beside the point. And the beauty of it is that no one seemed to care.
The show is bizarre by design. A séance conducted via TV antenna follows a flamenco demonstration that looks more Riverdance than Carmen. Sinatra meets doo-wop meets the Beatles then meets Sinatra again. The theme from Mission: Impossible blares at one moment, music from Halloween the next. Actors and audience become long-lost friends. Fictional characters divulge clues from their fabricated lives to party guests over buffet trays of au gratin potatoes. Real people bend the truth to costumed strangers. Reality becomes blurred, facts are suspended and intense pleasure comes from utter nonsense.
Resisting the magnetic pull into this “unreality” becomes as futile as defying a black hole. I must submit; I must play along. There is no refusing a dance from a dead man. There is no stopping a moving conga line. And until the curtain call, there is no exit from these four walls.
You could call murder mystery theater dinner “kitschy,” but it deserves better than that. To hipsters, kitsch is the kind of good/bad art that keeps its emotional distance from behind horn-rimmed glasses. But kitsch lacks heart. The creators of murder mystery dinner theater are fully aware of how gooey their brand of cheese is. They and their audiences—including me—eat it up.