Mixed Performance

The Mystery Mansion Dinner Theatre's cast is delightful--but the food they serve is not

Chuck Steake--former cowboy film star-turned-famous Hollywood booking agent--is furious with me. As we take our seats at one of the eight round tables in the room, he points to a sentence on the evening's program that reads, "Warning: Shots may be fired during this performance," and smiles in a way that isn't at all friendly.

Less than 10 minutes ago, Chuck wasn't this annoyed. Heck, he wasn't even Chuck. When we pulled up outside a strip mall on near east end of Broadway Boulevard and darted through the rain to join the group of people huddled outside a mysteriously unmarked door, he was my husband, Rich Johnson. But as soon as we'd forked over our $70 and been ushered through the door just to the left of the Gourmet of China restaurant, we'd been handed nametags--mine, I was mortified to see, read "Sharon Sharealike"--and Chuck caught wind of the fact that this wasn't just dinner theatre, but interactive dinner theatre.

I'd sort of known about the interactive part (and had admittedly left that part out when inviting Rich to go), but I hadn't anticipated how small and intimate the room would be or remembered that being called on is one of the things I fear most in the world, second only to shark attacks and people dressed up as cartoon characters. So it was with some trepidation that we sat down and nodded hello to the people we'd been seated with--Flora N. Phauna, Freida Tell, Fran Tick and a woman whose nametag I couldn't read. (You can only glance so many times at another girl's chest.)

The combined age of our table was probably a good 190 years younger than that of the average table at Magical Mystery Dinner Theatre--lowered somewhat by Rich and I but dropped further by the presence of two college-age girls accompanied by their mother--which seems to primarily attract the recently retired. The show was obviously sold out (and usually is, according to the person who took my reservations), and within 15 minutes of the doors opening, diners had realized there were bread slices stuffed into the top hat that sat on each table and were happily munching away.

The room itself was dimly lit, the walls covered by giant posters depicting the creepy age of Vaudevillian magic--men in capes and scary moustaches coaxing skeletons and ghosts from apparatuses presumably designed to make young ladies disappear. On the small stage at the back of the room stood various magician's props--the kind of box necessary for sawing people in half, a knife-throwing wheel (complete with existing blood spot) and a large cabinet.

After Rich noticed that our tabletop bent alarmingly whenever the woman across from us leaned on it, we realized that the six-person table was actually a three-person table with a large slab of 1/2-inch plywood sitting on top. And although I'm just as happy eating a plate of taco-truck ceviche on the side of the road as I am dining on J Bar's patio, I still thought it was weird that we had to use our tea saucers as bread plates. It was also disconcerting that none of us knew what we'd be eating; although we expected a menu to turn up at some point, the only literature that made it to the table was a small notice listing both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drink options--none of which are included in the cost of the meal.

Suddenly, a voice boomed out, "There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission ..." and so on, in a monologue that fans of the classical sci-fi series Outer Limits will be thrilled by. The Magnificent Steve then took to the stage--a magician played by Tony Eckstat--to explain the premise of the show itself.

We, the audience, were all "famous Hollywood booking agents." The Magnificent Steve hoped to make a big impression with his show, but was hampered somewhat by the fact that his past three assistants had ended up dead--under highly mysterious circumstances. Luckily, he'd ordered a new one for the evening's show. Skinny, shrieking Marsha (actually "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha," played on this night by Monica Link) and big, buxom, beehived Trixie (played by Kenton Jones) showed up to vie for the position, while unaware of their predecessors' tragic deaths. The actors left the stage as the audience was served the first of three courses.

While the speakers played a sort of endearingly bizarre range of music--from the I Dream of Jeannie theme song to Sinatra's "It's Witchcraft"--the salads were brought out. A salad is almost always a good gauge of the quality of the meal you're about to eat, and the handful of pale, iceberg lettuce plopped haphazardly on a white plate that was set down in front of me made me abandon hope. A pair of grape tomatoes was the only color in sight; the thick, yellowish dressing (served in two small dishes that were passed around the table) at least tasted like something, but didn't do anything helpful in terms of aesthetics. (It made me sad, frankly, that this article would show up in a dining guide, since it was already clear by that point that the cast--joined later by Maria Alburtus, who plays Swiss-miss Inga as well as a character that's a cross between Elvira and The Nanny--were working their butts off. )

Although the dialogue is pat and most of the jokes are groaners (the kitsch is part of the charm), the actors are unflaggingly enthusiastic and never fall out of character, whether mingling with the audience or serving the actual food. They do a great job of conveying the sense that they're actually having fun, which makes all the difference when your job includes pulling audience members on stage to make them act like gorillas or dress in baby bonnets. (The fact that I wasn't chosen for any of those things makes me extra appreciative of the actors.) It's what they literally bring to the table that's the problem.

The food emerges through a door that obviously connects to Gourmet of China; the question of whether Mystery Mansion is simply sharing the kitchen, or if Gourmet of China is actually supplying the food is just part of what's baffling. I don't want to be mean (I haven't the acidic heart of a real critic), but the fact that someone thinks that what was on my plate--a pile of soggy, steamed vegetables alongside a pile of spaghetti noodles covered in a thick, flavorless, strangely textured white sauce next to a few pork medallions stuffed with (I think) brown rice and something red (cranberries?)--adds up to an acceptable dinner is what I find particularly mysterious.

"This food is truly bland," a man behind us said loudly. "It's like hospital food for sick people."

Even the cheesecake was impressively tasteless, but I heard one of the actors tell a diner it was low-cal, which at least solves one crime.

I'm sure people exist who love bland food, or who have eaten bland food all their lives and don't know it doesn't have to be that way. I guessing, however, that those people don't spend a lot of time reading dining guides, so I consider it my duty to tell you--and Magical Mystery Dinner Theatre--that their dinner has a long way to go before becoming worthy of the hardworking actors who comprise their theatre.

  • Mystery Mansion Dinner Theatre, 7707 E. Broadway Blvd., 7 p.m., every Friday and Saturday $35; 624-0172

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