M Is for Murder; D Is for Dinner: Mystery Theater Is Part Ham with Well-Bred Setting

By Rogan, Catriona | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 16, 1996 | Go to article overview

M Is for Murder; D Is for Dinner: Mystery Theater Is Part Ham with Well-Bred Setting


Rogan, Catriona, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Armed with a copy of the weekend entertainment listings and with $40 in your back pocket, you'll find even the notoriously expensive Washington area can be an attractive place.

Along with potholes, high taxes and too many museums, the District and its suburbs are home to a wide variety of entertainment.

Murder-mystery dinner theaters, a waning fad of the late 1980s, are an obscure option. And, frankly, it's easy to understand why this form of theater is dying.

Still, if an uproarious crowd, slapstick comedy and cheap theatrics are your idea of a fun time, there are still a few venues left to choose from.

Silver Spring's Blair Mansion Inn is a perfect setting for a murder-mystery theater.

Situated on a portion of the original Pierce-Shoemaker estate, it's an 18th-century house built from stone quarried locally and wood from Rock Creek Park.

Imported French furnishings give the inn an air of grace. The oak beams, antique furniture and narrow, winding hallways set a scene Agatha Christie would have been proud of, right down to the ticking grandfather clock.

The inn boasts of its award-winning restrooms - yes, restrooms get awards.

The zany men's room is worth a vist, whatever your gender. What makes it stand out from the average restroom, whether for men or women, is a piano that doesn't play and lyrics on the walls. Most guests seem to spend more time in there than they need to.

Turn a corner off the main foyer and you come upon a conservatory, a library with wall-to-wall bookshelves and even a billiards room.

It's a pleasant Saturday evening, and a line of amateur detectives begins to form to see, or more accurately participate in, "Deathpac," performed by Murder Upon Request theater company.

After parting with $39, guests are led to a large dining room - not part of the original inn but decorated in similar fashion.

The audience of 100 is a mixture of young and old, white and black. Everybody is seated. And, in a true Oliver Twist manner, the audience lines up again, this time for dinner.

"It's like the `Love Boat,' " my companion quips, referring to the ocean-liner-style seating arrangements, where everybody is thrown together in anticipation of an event.

After being shepherded through yet another hallway under the watchful eye of a waiter, guests choose from glazed chicken, roast beef, fish, salad and what looks like a zuccini lasagne.

The food is good and "beats most of the competition," say the Peterson family, experienced dinner-theater-goers from Maryland.

Halfway through the meal, the actors take the stage (which is the remaining floor space) and the plot beings to unfold.

Welcome to Washington: There's no Col. Mustard or aging Professor Plum, but there are plenty of congressmen, campaign strategists and lobbyists. The audience members suddenly become the guests at a political dinner sponsored by the Bipartisan Action Commission Political Action Committee (BACPAC).

The ad-hoc performance is laden with political jokes and satire. The actors are sometimes so convincing that they could run for office - and win.

It's no easy feat for an actor to guide a large audience through a complex plot for three hours without the occasional support of a script or a prompter. Still, even though these actors sometimes struggled, they entertained and joked at a frantic pace.

The audience was intriqued from the start, shouting questions and answers to the "candidates" and quickly forming theories on who done it.

Realistically, and similarly to many detective novels, all the suspects could have committed the grisly murder. But nobody cared.

The cast quickly gave the more vocal audience members famous personas, which they donned for the remainder of the show. We soon had Clarence Thomas, the Cream O'Wheat man, Dr. …

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