Entertainment

Improv mystery dinner theater opens in Charlotte.

No good comes of a supper eaten next to a chalk outline on the floor. Sure enough, soon after I munch my appetizer, a woman collapses onto the white lines alongside my table. I can’t hear her dying words, though, because I’m laughing too hard.

So are the other 90 people packed into the Junior Ballroom of the Airport Sheraton for the inaugural Charlotte outing of The Dinner Detective, America’s largest chain of murder mystery dinner theaters.

We’ve been given basic instructions, souvenir coffee mugs and name tags on which to write pseudonyms. (“Dr. John H. Watson?” asks a guest, reading my tag. “Is he on ‘CSI’?”) And we’ve been on our collective guard since the host walked into the room at the start.

“The show has already begun,” she said with a sly smile. “There are people among you who shouldn’t be there. Don’t trust anyone, even someone you came with.” Sure enough, Bonnie quickly turns a skeptical eye on her Clyde, while Jay-Z gives the fish-eye to Beyoncé.

That’s Dinner Detective’s storytelling coup: Instead of lining up suspects and letting us interrogate them, as traditional murder mysteries do, actors mingle with the crowd incognito.

Everyone can be considered a guest or suspect; diners can question anyone in the room, though with no idea whether the replies can be trusted. I chat amiably with the person on my left about life in North Carolina, until my tablemate yanks out a gun at the last moment and confesses to multiple killings.

Colorado-based Allison and Kasey Learned run nine franchises from their Denver, Colo., home, including Charlotte and one set to open in Raleigh Jan. 31. Those represent about a third of the Dinner Detectives around the United States, which work from the same principle.

The cast follows a skeletal script: Certain clues appear in a certain order, and every table gets laminated sheets of information that help guests puzzle out the motive and name of the villain.

Beyond that, improv rules apply. Two cops, played on opening night by Allison Learned and Charlotte actor Michael Juilliard, bounce repartee back and forth and bounce around the room “investigating” likely targets. (You can pay extra for the right to make yourself or a fellow guest someone they’ll grill.)

“One woman gave us a picture of her husband, which we planted on the corpse,” says Learned. “Then we ‘revealed’ the picture, and he became a suspect. He had no idea he was going to be interrogated or that we had a picture of him.

“We stand audience members up and have an idea what we’d like to do with them. But 70 per cent of the time, things go differently from what we expect. They might tell us they can dance or sing or act or do some crazy thing, and we entice them to play along.”

Of course, sometimes extra visits to the cash bar convince a guest she’s the new Tina Turner. (Half a dozen women scribble that name on their tags on opening night.)

Says Learned, “Any time someone is volunteering, they want to steal the moment, and our actors graciously diffuse that. If someone wants to sing impromptu, we may set up a quick ‘American Idol’ bit where we pick a jury, and they get to sing.”

Career change

Dinner Detective has been in business for a decade. The Learneds, who quarreled in sixth grade but were a dedicated couple by high school, joined when Allison took an acting job eight years ago in the Long Beach, Calif., show. Two years later, they bought their first franchise, abandoning real estate and management gigs to do this full time.

“I look at top cities to do business in, cities that also have a strong, established culture,” says Kasey. “All the marketing in the world can’t replace word of mouth, and we want the show to run for years.

“We also need a healthy private business. Public shows have 80 to 90 people, and everyone gets involved. But the company has done corporate shows for up to 600 people.”

The nine actors in the public show come from a pool of about 40, who rotate in and out of roles. So though the script doesn’t change, the performances do.

The Learneds lead a two-hour audition to see if candidates can take direction well and remain flexible onstage. The most responsive and enthusiastic get six hours of training, as the Learneds break down all the bits in the show for them.

“They’re basically paid to do an improv gig,” says Allison.

“And they get to eat a four-course meal,” adds her husband.

Beef, chicken, veggie

Guests choose among beef, chicken and vegetarian pasta entrees. There’s no corn, except in the dialogue:

“We are women of the world,” declares the cop proudly. “I was going to say women of the night, but ... that would be wrong.”

Or “Hands up! Hands up! Everybody put your hands up!” When we comply, she starts dancing to a club vibe.

Sophisticated? No. There’s a legitimate case to be solved amid the craziness, and one person’s answer form holds the correct solution on opening night. But of the words “mystery dinner theater,” the first may be the least important.

“You have half the audience members making up their backstories, because they think you’re supposed to lie,” says Kasey.

“Then we get answer forms accusing guests who aren’t even actors of the murder, providing long rationales for why they did it. You don’t have to get the solution to have fun.”

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