Invisible Theatre valiantly tries to close the gaps in an empty-headed murder mystery.

Seven people with hidden agendas and limited talent gather in a room, bicker and make lame excuses for their shortcomings, all the while relishing--but not taking responsibility for--the knife in the boss' back.

No, it's not a Democratic presidential primary debate. It's Knock 'Em Dead, the "interactive comedy/murder mystery" now playing at Invisible Theatre.

The setting is the green room of a tacky comedy nightclub. Under the eye of Lou Dumbello (Nick Cianciotto), the club's emcee and enforcer, seven contestants--one of them a lip-synching dog partnered with Ian Wayne, a flamboyant drag queen manqué (the effervescent Kevin Lucero Less)--have assembled for the finals of the club's talent contest. Alas, talent is a relative term. Along with the dog-and-phony show, there's Hal Brown (James Blair), a mouthy ventriloquist pulling more strings than what's in the back of his dummy; Roxie Barn (Liz McMahon), a stand-up comic someone should ask to sit down; Bamby Lynn (Tracy Loving), a cheerleader with pompoms between her ears; Lotta Verboten (Kathleen Erickson), a chanteuse who sounds like the love child of Marlene Dietrich and Elmer Fudd; and the Great Somnambulo (Michael F. Woodson), a hypnotist who could be more swindler than swami.

Inevitably, a corpse tumbles out from behind a door; it's the club's shady owner, Vinnie Bumpcuss (Mike Kehoe in what would be called a walk-on role if he didn't spend most of the time face-down on the floor). One of the contestants turns out to be an undercover police detective, who conducts a murder investigation with the help of the audience.

See, each of the suspects has done several suspicious things--concealed weapons, made odd phone calls or showed up with a bloody scarf or rubber glove. The play's second half consists of an interrogation of each suspect, with the detective leading the audience in the questioning.

The detective, when deputizing the audience, makes us swear that we will not reveal the identity of the murderer when we leave. That's unnecessary, because the murderer can change from one night to the next. It's all a matter of how the audience votes after the interrogations; Phoenix playwrights Tom Oldendick and Will Roberson have provided multiple endings, depending on the audience vote.

And that's the big problem with Knock 'Em Dead. With the denouement reduced to a popularity contest, the playwrights can't commit to a single murderer. Every character, except the dog, the dummy and the detective, does very suspicious things with barely concealed, dark motivations that never get explained. Under questioning, the suspects offer intentionally lame excuses so as not to lead the audience toward any single character. In the end, the play collapses under a stinking pile of red herrings.

Invisible Theatre's actors do try to rise above the material, which includes such hoary lines as "I can't stand the sight of blood, especially mine." The script does offer a couple of good zingers--after witnessing Bamby's act, Roxie spits, "No wonder Disney killed your mother"--but the authors shift much of the work to the actors in the second act, which is largely improvisational.

Some of that improvisation can be quite good. On opening night, Erickson's Lotte Verboten was making excuses for her vocal condition to an audience member who'd been enlisted to hold up the police tape. "But you don't sing, do you?" Erickson dismissively asked the audience member, who was Lisa Otey, one of the most versatile and popular singers in town. And Cianciotto's response to someone who asked why his character had thrown away a phone number if he might need it again was priceless; I won't repeat it in case he has an opportunity to use it again.

But Oldendick and Roberson have gone to great lengths to avoid originality in the script. They've stolen elements right and left: Swishy Ian's John Wayne impersonation comes from the La Cage aux Folles, Bamby's cheerleading routine is swiped from The Miss Firecracker Contest, the play's entire concept is ripped off from the awful movie Clue, which was distributed with three endings, and on and on. Talk about a knock-off.

(Invisible Theatre indulges in some good-natured pop-culture larceny of its own. For example, the plainclothesman who watches the suspects during intermission is a dead ringer for Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist, except for the Scooby-Doo necktie.)

It would have been far better if the playwrights had the courage to defy the audience's choice. Let the audience finger the wrong man or woman, Hitchcock-style, and then have the innocent characters absolve themselves convincingly with the detective making the correct collar at the very end. This would still be fun for the audience, and it would create a far more satisfying story.

Invisible Theatre does the best it can with the material, from the verging-on-campy acting to the seedy Tom Benson set, which looks like it must reek of stale beer and cigarette smoke. IT's Knock 'Em Dead can provide an evening of mindless, murderous fun, as long as you don't care that the playwrights are larcenous cowards.

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