at the Mystery Cafe

A few weeks ago I had occasion to look in on a rehearsal of the finale from The New Moon. After I’d listened to some 45 minutes of “Stouthearted Men” from an office next door, I took a peek. Although the members of the company were obviously fatigued and irritable, nobody spoke a word while the director and choreographer negotiated the traffic patterns of some 25 moving bodies. And when the time came to run through the marching formations, everyone–music director, accompanist, chorus, and principals alike–performed with a concentrated precision and earnestness of purpose that completely transformed this corny old yawner. “This is art,” I found myself thinking, not without some astonishment, as I watched these weary people join hands and raise their arms and voices for what I’m sure they were hoping would be the last time that night.

My point is not to claim that Romberg is a composer of equal merit to, say, Puccini, but to demonstrate how, in our search for the greatest and purest of any art, we often shut ourselves off from the genuine pleasures of lesser entertainments, on the periphery of what we consider “theater.” In some superstitious way we seem to believe that it will diminish Sophocles and Shakespeare to admit we had a good time at the circus or a puppet show–or at a show like Bingo in the First Degree.

This audience-participation murder-mystery dinner-theater production certainly has all the elements of the genre: the setting is a community supper and bingo night at the parish hall of Saint Felix’s Church, and the audience is part of the congregation. Tonight is the night that the prize money, which has grown to a five-digit figure over several months, will be awarded to some lucky person, along with a trophy that resembles a brass floor lamp. It is also the night that the wimpish Gerald has planned to elope with Sylvia Vain, the sexpot rectory secretary, in defiance of his domineering Aunt Edna, who may or may not have stolen her bingo card from Sylvia; the night that the entire catering staff has jumped ship, with the exception of the owners, Rose and Red, forcing the organizers of the parish event to double as food servers (Gerald receives a round of applause when he finally masters the folding of a serving stand without becoming entangled in it); and the night that the regular bingo-board operator has been hospitalized, necessitating a substitute in the form of one Sister Mary Mary (yes, someone does call her “quite contrary” before the evening is over).

Just before the entree, Aunt Edna wins the grand prize and is almost immediately bludgeoned to death with the trophy during an unexpected blackout. Sister Mary Mary then announces that she is not a real nun (something I had suspected earlier, when she brought out a guitar and proceeded to sing “Give Me That Old-Time Religion,” a hymn dear to the hearts of Southern Baptists) but an undercover police officer. As the dinner progresses, audience and characters unite to investigate the murder and expose the culprit.

This kind of theater is not easy to play. Its classier counterpart, the Set Gourmet Theatre, has spacious quarters that permit the actors some degree of separation from the audience (and allow for a large wait staff). But the dining room of the Essex Inn that comprises the eating and playing area of Bingo in the First Degree requires the seven actors to sprint through their complicated staging while they simultaneously schlepp full and empty plates, avoiding spills and staying in character throughout–all at a proximity to the audience only slightly less cozy than what one can experience with one’s fellow passengers on the Clark Street bus at rush hour. Furthermore, audience members are encouraged to interfere with the action at any time. (On the night I attended, a gentleman attempted to be helpful during the crucial blackout by holding his lit cigarette lighter up for illumination. On other nights, the actor playing a maintenance man has had tools lifted from his pockets by various patrons.) However lightweight this entertainment’s literary aspects, the fact remains that striking down the fourth wall and inviting some 100 unrehearsed audience members to join in demands a concentration and agility that actors on nice, safe proscenium stages can only imagine. Everybody wants to get in on the act, and it takes a special kind of actor to allow the audience to do so while making sure no one runs away with a scene.

The company at the Mystery Cafe (which recently became independent from the Boston-based franchise and is welcoming suggestions for a new name) came through with nary a trace of trepidation, wearing their personae as snugly as cat suits and taking both interruption and assistance from the audience in stride. Particular commendations go to Colleen Kelly as Sister Mary Mary, Warren Davis as Manny the Neanderthal janitor, and Michael Govern as Gerald, who on the night I was there received the most secret ballots from the audience as the chief suspect. And the four-course dinner, far from being the institutional spaghetti the play’s setting had led me to expect, is hearty and unpretentious.

Indeed, “hearty and unpretentious” pretty well describes the entire evening, which makes no claims to haute art or cuisine. The d/b/a Mystery Cafe ensemble assays the serious, strenuous business of giving its audiences an easy, nonserious good time–and it succeeds admirably. The folks with whom I shared a table–two couples from Merrillville, two from Joliet, and one Lincoln Park yuppie who said she didn’t want to participate and promptly won the first bingo game–all assured me that they had enjoyed themselves thoroughly. After watching the actors work so hard to make it all look so easy, I found myself agreeing. There’s nothing wrong with lightening up on the Aristotle once in a while.