KPBS AIRDATE: April 8, 1992
I’ve always felt that dinner theater can be murder. But that was the old days, when you got a chicken leg and mashed potatoes to go with a soggy serving of Neil Simon.
This is the nineties. Dinner theater is served up with murder and conspiracy, as well as improv and audience participation. I figured I could use a little intrigue in my life, so I called the Mystery Cafe, which is part of a nationwide company headquartered in Boston . The Cafe has been in San Diego four years, and now has two venues: the Imperial House Restaurant on Kalmia Street and the Quail Room at Lake San Marcos .
I decided on “Rio Can Be Murder” at the Imperial House Restaurant, because it’s a completely local production, written by Byron LaDue, directed by Will Roberson, and fiercely acted by a stable of capable San Diegans.
Set in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro in 1946, the very broadly comic piece touches on Nazis in hiding, Marxist politics and even saving the rain forest. There’s more sexual innuendo than murderous intrigue. In fact, the murders cluster at the very end, and you barely even care whodunnit.
But the audience is brought to its feet for a samba-line, and for a couples dance contest. Several people are picked on for their appearance, but mostly for their proximity to the action. The actors also serve the food, so there’s plenty of time for off-the-cuff interaction, should you so desire.
I probably didn’t drink enough; I had no trouble staying on the periphery. But most of the audience was completely into it, hopping onto the dance floor, teasing the actors, getting friendly with the other eight diners at their table.
It’s mostly an excuse for letting go, if this is the way you like to do it. The script is pretty silly, and several times, actors laughed at their own or the audience’s comments. So, they sort of slipped out of character. But this isn’t about thea-tuh, dahling; it’s about laugh-tuh.
There’s a lot of over-acting, but the characters are stereotypes to begin with — a Brazilian femme fatale, a French ingénue, a dashing American soldier, a club-owner/drag queen/closet Nazi. You know the types. The actors work hard, and some are quite fast and funny, especially James Pascarella as the drag-Nazi Uncle Fritz, Anna Rosemore as the hot-blooded Rita Sambina and Jennette Womack as Nicole, whose French accent is so thick and convincing, the audience has a hard time understanding her.
The action is lively, though unevenly paced. The broccoli is limp, but you do get a choice of chicken in caper sauce or pasta primavera. Mystery Cafe is packin’ em in for five shows each weekend. If you expect everything to be overdone, you won’t be underwhelmed.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.