Last Saturday night (9/5/08) my friend and sister storyteller, Sandra Harris, and I drove just south of downtown Indy to the Milano Inn to experience “Pizza Driver: Murder by the Slice” at the Mystery Café.
The executive producer, Joe Strange, had told me that some people say that his kind of interactive show is not truly theatre. He invited me to see for myself.
My verdict: it is definitely theatre, but with a very specific appeal. It is also a LOT of fun! Sandra said she had a good time, too. I am delighted to have discovered a whole new (to me) niche within the live theatre world: mystery dinner theatre.
According to the Mystery Café’s website, the author of “Pizza Driver,” Nita Hardy, writes interactive scripts that may be used by theatres around the country. For fourteen years, she was artistic director and resident playwright for Agatha’s: A Taste of Mystery dinner theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.
The story in “Pizza Driver” is that we are all at the grand opening of Pizza Driver Pizzeria in Little Italy, New York City. This little pizza company got started in Marty Scorcheezy’s one-room apartment, with Mama Scorcheesy making the pizzas and Marty’s friend, Bobby Dinero, delivering them. It became so popular that at this, their grand opening, there are lots of celebrities in attendance.
It is supposed to be a celebratory event. However, pretty quickly someone is discovered to be dead, and the mystery begins.
I think it must take a special knack to write mystery dinner theatre scripts. You need to build in an actual mystery that can be solved in a way that makes sense, but which is not so easy that the hardcore sleuths in your audience can solve it before the bread basket is empty. There have to be clues in the word search and crossword puzzles that are at everyone’s places when they sit down, plus clues in the speeches of the many characters.
On the other hand, you also need to have a lot of funny one-liners and other elements that will appeal to the people in your audience who don’t care about “who dunnit” and who just want to laugh and have a good time without having to work too hard at it.
On top of all that, you need to include a lot of characters who only have a few lines. Those characters’ lines will be read aloud by audience members who have never seen them before. They have to be easy to read and yet be juicy enough to allow shy (and not-so-shy!) people to express their inner hams.
And finally, the script has to have lots of breaks in it to allow the servers to clear away one yummy food course and serve the next. In other words, the script needs to have lots of short scenes that create a story arc that is strong and simple enough to survive interruptions, rather than one or two long scenes that develop a complex story that requires the audience’s undivided and sustained attention.
It is also a good idea to build in a stretch break late in “Act Three.” In “Pizza Driver,” for example, everyone stands behind their chairs and sings the song from their program, more or less in unison, depending on how many cocktails they consumed earlier.
“Pizza Driver” does this all of this admirably, especially when its two leads are played by two excellent actors. Juli Inskeep and Justin Brown bring a wealth of theatrical experience, comedic instincts, and just plain chutzpah to their portrayals.
Juli Inskeep directed “Proof” at Theatre on the Square earlier this year and is a member of IndyProv comedy troupe. She also sang a heartbreakingly beautiful song as the well-meaning mother of a gay young man in All-Alike Productions’ presentation of “Bare: the Musical” this summer. In “Pizza Driver,” she alternates between an otherwise ballsy mama’s boy, Marty Scorcheezy, (and yes, I said “boy”) and the even ballsier mafia godmother, Connie Francis Ford Coppola Corleoni.
Justin Brown is the hottie that all of the other students lusted after in “Bare.” In “Pizza Driver” he…well, his sexiness would probably shine through in any role he played, but in this piece it just adds to the hilarity. His first appearance is as Mama Scorcheezy, complete with layers of costume fat, orthopedic ground-gripper shoes, grey hair in a bun, and dangling, softball-in-sock breasts that look as if they will put someone’s eye out if s/he turns too fast.
(By the way, there is no costume credit in the program, but Stephen Hollenbeck told me later that he designed this costume and others in this show.)
Brown also plays the big-bellied and violent Bobby Dinero, who is Martin Scorcheezy’s partner in the pizza delivery business. However, he is at his most startling and…is “gorgeous” the right word? as the celebrity Like’za Mennelly.
Inskeep and Brown also skillfully set things up so that audience members feel comfortable participating right from the beginning. Their ability to gracefully and effectively manage the audience’s energy is as important as their excellent acting skills.
The Mystery Café space is a room upstairs at the Milano Inn. When Sandra and I went, all 64 chairs were filled. There are lots of small, square, tables for four pushed together into four long tables for sixteen. You sit across from your dinner companion and get to know the strangers sitting on either side of you.
On one side of us sat twelve beautiful young women celebrating/mourning one woman’s impending nuptials. In other words, they had chosen The Mystery Café for their bachelorette party! The bride-to-be wore an emerald green dress and a sparkly tiara. Her friends wore all-black outfits and bright pink feather boas.
One of the young women told me that the bride-to-be’s name was Nicole, “but be sure to call her ‘Hot-tub Nickie’ in your blog.”
The couple on the other side of us, a brother and sister named Steve and Trudy, were visiting all the way from Butte, Montana! They were in town to see an Indianapolis Colts game. It was a present from Trudy to Steve for his birthday.
“But we usually just put all the names of places we want to visit in a fishbowl,” Steve told me. “Then we pull one out and go there.”
Their trips always involve some kind of sporting event. An Atlanta Braves game in Atlanta, Georgia, for example. A Mets game in New York City, I think they said.
Their trips also always involve some kind of cultural event. “I looked on the Internet and found out about this Mystery Café for our Indianapolis trip,” Trudy told me.
I always try to see a show when I’m somewhere else on a business trip or vacation. Maybe I will start trying to see a sporting event as well! I loved meeting sports fans who are also theatre fans.
It was a pleasure to hear about their hometown, too. Trudy and Steve still live in the house they were born in, and still love Butte very much. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a place that has already seen snow this fall. A place so cold that instead of leaving your car at the airport you pay to have someone keep it in a heated garage for you or else you might not be able to start it when you return. A place where everyone brings homemade food to every community meeting, even a church meeting during Lent that is supposed to be about fasting. (That story made me laugh out loud!) Trudy and Steve may have been the ones on a trip, but their stories made me feel as if I had visited Butte, too. It was an unexpected treat.
Speaking of food, the Mystery Café food, provided by the Milano Inn, is delicious. One young man even passed out: he hadn’t eaten all day because he was so looking forward to this meal. At first, everyone thought his passing out was part of the show, but then someone realized that it wasn’t, and called 911. The man regained consciousness but was carried away by the fire department anyway, just to be sure he was okay. The waiters went back to serving the lasagna (or chicken parm or whatever – there are four choices of entree’) and everyone else put away their cell phones.
Anything can happen when it’s live theatre!
“Pizza Driver” runs on selected Friday and Saturday evenings through November 22, 2008. As my friend, Dane Rogers, says, this theatre has a loyal fan base and its shows sell out quickly. (He enjoyed being the stage manager for one of their shows last year.) So, if you’re thinking of going, be sure to make your reservation as soon as you know for sure. You may order tickets online at the Mystery Café’s website or by calling the box office at 317-684-0668.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com