Fine dining with a helping of homicide

Last Saturday night I witnessed a murder. I just finished my chicken dinner at ZK’s at Santarelli Gardens, when Clara Witherspoon, the restaurant’s newly-hired accountant, stumbled into the dining room. A bloody gash on her forehead glistened as she fell to the floor, still clutching her calculator.

But to be honest, she had it coming. As one of her co-workers so elegantly stated, “She’s dead and nobody liked her.”

All of her co-workers had motives, so there were plenty of suspects. There was ZK, the boisterous owner of the restaurant, who had already drank more than her fair share of martinis. There was Donnie, the restaurant manager, a short-tempered guy, who everybody knew had connections to the mob. Or maybe it was Cedric, the restaurant’s entertainer and a favorite with the ladies? And what about our hostess, Bunny, Cedric’s blonde girlfriend from Jersey?

For the players in “Murder Upon Request, Inc.,” a local murder-mystery dinner theater company, this is just an ordinary night. Dominic Lonardo, the company’s founder and owner, has been doing these performances for 15 years. As a restaurant manager in the 1980s, he began staging murder mysteries. Drawing upon personal acting experience from improv and stand-up comedy, he wrote a script, collected talent and staged the story for the next year and a half. When he realized he could make money from this hobby, Lonardo began writing and staging new stories and incorporated his small business in the early 1990s.

“Murder Upon Request” performs its own brand of interactive dinner theater. The scripts, collectively written by the performers, involve animated but realistic characters whose goal is to engage and involve the dinner guests. Dominic describes the characters as “a little larger than life, but very vibrant and believable.”

Demetrius Parker, who plays Cedric, explains, “we try to develop characters that people can relate to. Someone you can look at and think ‘I know someone just like that.’ That way, now that you can relate, it’s easier for you to play along.”

I’ve just sat down at my table when Bunny comes by to introduce herself. Using her loudest, most drawn-out Jersey accent, she asks for my name, compliments my date on her outfit and begins to tell us about her job as hostess at ZK’s. Later, Lynn Audrey-Neal, who plays Bunny, explains to me that this “early bird work” is the first step in involving the audience.

“You read someone at early bird,” she said. “We start engaging in what I call my rap. What information I have to get out about myself and what can I draw from you.”

The performance is remarkably informal. Instead of performing on a stage, the actors walk among the tables. Audience members often make silly remarks during the dialogue (one woman wanted to book an hour with Cedric, if you know what I mean), and the actors periodically come to the tables so guests can ask questions about their characters to help solve the murder.

“Everybody wants to be a part of what is going on,” Audrey-Neal said. “So as soon as we come around and start engaging you, you become part of the plot and it makes everyone feel special.”

So why do audience members feel comfortable enough to scream out? The players say it’s just the entertainer inside us all flowing out.

“Everyone cracks jokes with their friends or mimics characters they know,” Parker said, “so this is their chance to actually do that in a public setting where they’re having a good meal and they feel that they can just cut loose.”

When the detective arrives on the scene he asks the audience for help in determining which suspect to arrest. A girl sitting near me tells the cop that her friend, who had supposedly been in the bathroom during the murder, is really the real killer. Another audience member offered to be Donnie’s lawyer, calling out, “You don’t have to tell him anything, Donnie.”

“Most people want to interact,” Lonardo said. “They want to play roles, or even make themselves suspects, and that’s great. We open that door and they come on through.”

The real challenge for the actors though is staying in character. No matter how many absurd comments the audience makes, or how hard they tease an actor, the performers must stick to their characters. For characters like Donnie, who are supposed to be menacing at all times, staying in character despite the many jokes made by the audience during the performance isn’t so easy.

“The whole focus is trying to stay in character because people will say things that you’re not expecting,” Parker said. “You have some people who come and they try to get you out of character.”

Crowd reactions are equally as hard to predict.

“Every crowd is different,” Parker said. “You have some crowds where the energy is just manic and they’re yelling everything and you actually have to gain control. And then you have the total opposite, where nobody is saying anything.”

Because it is improv, actors have to be prepared for any kind of crowd reaction. Sometimes an audience member will ask an actor a question they don’t know the answer to and they just have to do the best they can.

Even the best improv actors occasionally run into messy situations. Parker chuckles, recalling an evening during his first year with the company, when he was playing a gangster type. The detective was frisking him after the audience warned that he had a weapon. A female audience member said, “Officer, I don’t think you’re doing that correctly, let me do it.” Because she was there with her husband, the cop didn’t think it would be a problem.

“He thought the audience would like it,” Parker said. “So she gets up and I’m against the wall and she gropes me! And then she looks at the cop and says, ‘I have to take him home for a personal investigation.’ The audience loved it and we all went with it, but you honestly feel like ‘what am I supposed to do?'”

As I watched the show I kept thinking about the movie Clue. Has it had an effect on “Murder Upon Request?” As much as I am expecting them to be devoted worshippers of the movie, they all casually reply “not really.” They’ve simply heard the same lines from the movie way too many times.

“You will get the kind of people who want to be the comedians. They’ll be like, ‘The butler did it in the kitchen with the hammer. Ha ha ha!'” Parker said. “Clue was a good movie, but we’re different. Think a little bit, laugh a lot and enjoy what we give you.”

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