Play With Your Food

Like most critics, I don't normally pay attention to what the crowd thinks. One reason is that I usually see shows on opening night; those audiences, packed with friends, family, staff, subscribers and other well-wishers, are a notoriously partisan lot. So given are they to urge the proceedings on that every joke becomes uproarious, every sentiment inspired. And the plot, these patrons would have you believe, is simply the most amusing, touching, frightening, entertaining, mind-bending thing that they've ever experienced. And if you don't clap until your hands hurt, you're an insensitive prig. I swear I've seen even the chorus line get a standing ovation.

Well, over the past few weeks I surveyed a developing cottage industry in Houston: dinner theater. To say that the three productions I broke bread with -- Let's Kill the Boss at the Marriott West Loop, Prime Time Murder at Renata's Restaurant and The Illusionist at Old San Francisco Steak House -- left me with indigestion is putting it mildly. But at each performance I was a minority of one (two, if you count my companion of the evening). Everybody else ate it up, every last crumb and wiggle. And it wasn't opening night anywhere, either; in fact, two of the three offerings have been running for months. So what's going on here? Are my tastes too finicky? Are the consumers too easy to please? What does dinner and a show mean, anyhow?

First and foremost, dinner theater is a package deal, sort of a drive-in movie in the flesh. For some thirty bucks, you get an adventure and a meal along the lines of what you'd expect at The Black-Eyed Pea. The play shouldn't be heavy, since the food usually is. But the play should be rich, since the food usually isn't. Though there are a few first-class dinner theater venues around the country, with more or less fine dining and good acting (improbable as it may sound, Burt Reynolds has one, in Florida), more often dinner theater is all about mass-market spectacle, a combination of commissary food and middling theatrics.

So you might think -- as I did -- that everybody would tally things up to see if, on the whole, they got their money's worth. Can one, that is, be regaled by a prix fixe? I figured that since a ticket to Houston community theater ranges from $8 to $15, the artistic level of a dinner theater should at least match that of community theater. That leaves another $15 to $20 to cover the cost of the meal, which should translate into fare somewhere between blue-plate specials and catered affairs. But at each of the three dinner theaters I visited, I could barely stomach the craft, and while I didn't play with my food, I didn't much relish it.

I seemed to be the only attendee calculating that way, though. The rest of the audiences -- of all ages and makeup except, curiously, the geriatric set -- had a grand time, laughing at the lame jokes in the two original murder-mystery comedies and oohing and aahing at the tired tricks in The Illusionist, an overwrought drama with magic. The audiences couldn't have cared less that they'd seen these TV antics a thousand times before -- or if they did care, they cared a great deal, relishing the very familiarity of what they were seeing. They'd purchased their tickets and, like at an amusement park, they wanted to be taken for a ride. They came for a show, they were going to enjoy it; they paid for a meal, they were going to eat it. So (and I'm no Alison Cook), while my beef bordelaise at one site was a tough carcass lubricated with indeterminate goo and my strawberry parfait at another was little more than flavored whipped cream, everybody else's hit the spot. Plates were cleaned; I didn't see one doggy bag. People were hungry. Thinking about how, really, the two parts didn't add up to money well spent -- how if they'd forked over the dough to experience these offerings separately they could've eaten better and seen better -- would have only gotten in the way.

At Let's Kill the Boss, the assertively friendly cast of caricatures works the room so compulsively that it's hard to even take a bite from the three-course (incorrectly labeled as four-course) meal. The actors prod you to jot down everything that looks suspicious, helping you solve what passes for riddles in your "mystery packet" ("Like a straggler at a party / or a rat inside a tomb/ the murderer is often / the last one in the room") and letting you know that you can use the Monopoly-style money inserted in your program to bribe them for clues. The proceedings are relentless: pop tunes with "money" in the title blare in the background while the actors -- given such lines as "He's tighter than a pair of Spandex biking shorts on Rush Limbaugh and as popular as Ann Richards in a Playboy centerfold" -- are made up so heavily that you'd think they were playing an arena, not aisles. They allow no respite whatsoever. Privacy is not an option. In fact, you may have to sit at a table with strangers.

At Prime Time Murder, you sit only with your party, thankfully, and you do get a break in the action, since the cast is also the waitstaff (fill in your own joke about actors and waiting tables). It's hard, though, to see them as characters in a play and refrain from asking for more butter; it's also hard to carry on a conversation when the cast is rounding their way from table to table to deliver ba-dum-bum jokes that, when all are told, will help you determine the killer. Gratuities are not included ("We're brilliantly underpaid!" is the proclamation), but I have a tip for them: at these prices, they should be.

It can't be stressed enough that at both Let's Kill the Boss and Prime Time Murder audience participation is a must. You simply can't sit back and watch -- even if you want to. The night I saw Boss -- where the gimmick is that you're part of an employee appreciation dinner -- an aging blond overdressed in a black cocktail dress was pleased as punch that she was apparently the boss' new mistress, while a young man in rumpled slacks was at a loss to say what department he was in. At Murder the audience members are star-studded guests at a party to kick off a new TV show. "Woody," I heard a Murder actress breathe to a large, robust man with that on his nametag, "Mia is here -- I don't want any problems." At Murder it's a roll of the dice as to whether things come to a screeching halt when it's time for the suspects to be questioned. At neither Murder nor Boss are instructions totally clear. And let's just leave it that at both plays the casts' ad-libs are on par with those of the audience. At each play a master sleuth wins a door prize (for Boss it's dinner for two at the selfsame restaurant; for Murder, it's a T-shirt), so that's something, I guess. So is the fact that both last less than two hours.

The Illusionist approaches three. It shouldn't. While the most ambitious of the dinner theater I saw, it also fails the most. Here, you eat first; the night I attended, the meal took an hour and a half. And though the setting is a steak house, the main course was chicken (sappy rice came with it; vegetables, though advertised, did not). You can, as some did, pay $18.95 for the show alone and order off the pricey regular menu, but that doesn't seem right -- or economical. I had to ask five times for a soda from my overworked waitress, there weren't enough busboys and with the sounds of another room's cash register, a piano player pounding out "La Bamba" and a swing door badly in need of oil all drifting into the room where the play was unfolding, The Illusionist's setting seemed even more surreal than might befit a text based on magic.

The play -- 100 intermissionless minutes -- wants to use magic to tell the story of an illusionist's life. But the prestidigitation is lazy, all floating balls and substitution trunks; the drama is sketchy, leaping decades in a poof; and the actor playing the magician (Robert Gebert, who is the author not just of this play but of Prime Time Murder as well) is too damn self-satisfied. He's also a better magician than actor, which, unfortunately, isn't really a compliment. The Illusionist is the only dinner theater play I saw to have a set; why it's a platform stage of faux bricks, though, escapes me. And while much of the time period is a generation or two back, the proceedings are amateurishly anachronistic (the tearing-up-newspaper trick is done with a recent copy of the Chronicle). A great deal of the story -- now in its fourth version! -- concerns the magician's beautiful, idealistic assistant and love interest (Christine McPeters, a far too talented actress to be in this). She wants him to perform "socially relevant" magic. "If you take away the magic, I'm just like anybody else," the illusionist says. My companion of the evening whispered, "If you're going to do close-up magic, at least make somebody's brownie disappear, especially since it's at least three days old."

Even less appetizing than the dessert is the fact that at all three plays booze is extra (though Boss is the only one tacky enough to plop bottles of wine on your table to tempt you, and then tell you to tote up what you've imbibed "on the honor system"). Tax isn't included either. Now, after reading all this, if you're so starved for entertainment that you're still thinking of mixing dinner and theater, I have a proposition. Come on over to the house, and for a modest fee I'll tap dance to the barbecue.

Let's Kill the Boss, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Marriott West Loop, 1750 West Loop, 944-2583.

Prime Time Murder, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Renata's, 2006 Lexington, 523-5967.

The Illusionist, 7:30 Fridays and Saturdays at Old San Francisco Steak House, 8611 Westheimer, 558-1438.

All three runs are open-ended.


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