Solving a fabricated “mystery” while eating overpriced chicken Romano wasn’t my idea of a thrilling Friday night.
Yet, at a recent dinner theater night at Maggiano’s in Center City, I found I couldn’t help immersing myself entirely in the whodunit antics, laughing along and conspiring, reveling in the tense and frenetic energy. I got so into my sleuthing in the dimly-lit private banquet room, in fact, that my team and I managed to crack the plot’s puzzle, and were subsequently awarded a prize.
Turns out I’m not alone in having a positive experience. Dinner theater is surprisingly popular in Philadelphia.
Nearly 900 people expressed interest on the Facebook event page for the “Night of Mystery and Murder” at Maggiano’s I attended. And for an upcoming Game of Thrones-themed murder mystery dinner at Evil Genius Beer Company? 2,400 people, so far.
Before I tried it, this trending desire to give up three-to-four hours of a weekend night to play detective seemed suspect — and the price-tags left me completely floored. $90 at Evil Genius. $65 at Maggiano’s (excluding drinks). $61.95 at the DoubleTree by Hilton (excluding drinks). The most “economical” murder mystery dining option in Philadelphia proper seems to be a $53 show at Bistro Romano (again, excluding drinks).
What makes a person shell out the cash for a night of cheesy make-believe and family-style cuisine?
More importantly: Why do I, after reflecting upon this all, kinda want to spend my hard-earned dough on another one of these events? I came to the following conclusions:
1) You’re required to be social
At the beginning of the show, performed by Keith & Margo’s Murder Mystery, we were told by the burly, heavily-Jersey-accented “detective” by named “Rocco” that mingling and being chatty would benefit us in the game.
Why? Because some of the actors and actresses were hiding in plain sight, disguised amongst us dinner guests, eating with us and playing along at our tables — aka they could be members of any of the eight-person teams.
That meant letting go of pretenses about etiquette, and jumping in the middle of people’s conversations to ask questions. Queries we were told to put forth included the normal small talk, but pumped up a bit: Have you ever wanted to murder someone? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have a lot of money? Do you have a dark secret?
One of my guests — my dad — had a briefcase, since he had just come from work. Red flag! Multiple people asked if they could look at his briefcase because it appeared to be suspicious. He’d arrived late, too, which only made people more convinced he was an actor.
When we got defensive — rightly so, there was legit sensitive information in his files — they would ask to see our business cards. They even asked to see our IDs. One woman came back from “researching me” online, and asked how long we had lived in Miami. In any other scenario, this would have freaked me out deeply. But the high-stakes atmosphere made it seem almost natural to be asked such ridiculously personal questions.
Whether introverted or extroverted, there’s no way to not get to know someone on an intimate level here, which is one of the reasons why dinner theaters are attractive for groups of singles, friends and couples.
2) The petty drama is hilarious
Take note: People get drunk at a dinner theater, and people get competitive at a dinner theater.
When these components are combined, you’re bound to see TBS levels of reality television drama. If you’re not the type to instigate it yourself, it is deliciously comical to watch.
One woman got into a verbal altercation with another for insinuating that she must be an actress because “she didn’t seem” like a lawyer (her actual profession). Yikes. Another woman was trying to participate in the sleuthing, but her slurring made her virtually unintelligible. Several people were suspicious of an entire family for having the last name that sounded “made-up” (it sounded a lot like hamburger). One couple was bickering over who was “better” than the other at solving mysteries.
Heckling of the actors and actresses did sometimes get nearly out of hand, but the performers would — playfully, though harshly — roast the guests in return.
3) Escapism is surprisingly therapeutic
Though most psychologists would refrain from telling you that “escapism” is a good coping mechanism, the ability to just let go and get lost within a storyline — especially one purposefully crafted to make little sense and confuse you — feels good.
Your mind is wrapped up with who hired the hitmen, who stabbed the victim and who shot the dart, and left without time to dwell on what you regret not accomplishing that day at work or what you need to improve about yourself. Extra bonus: you don’t have to escape alone — your friends or family are right there with you in the fantasy world.
An actor going by “Tad” said that, in his 30years of working as a dinner theater actor, he has never seen “more of a demonstrated need” for people to revel in the outskirts of reality. Per Tad, dinner theaters are on the rise more than ever before — even more than in the ’80s and early ’90s — and murder mystery weekends and private parties are booming as well.
If you can’t conceptualize what a “murder mystery weekend” is, fear not: Bob’s Burgers already did the job for you.
4) You can immerse yourself in details
After three or four hours of intense investigating, snooping and debating, we were asked by the “hosts” (typically, the detective and some other fake authority figure), to jot down what our team believed happened. The closest ones to the truth would win an undisclosed prize.
My type-A personality stepped to the fore, and I snagged a paper and a pen to write a complete outline, chronologically recounting everything that had happened in the plot, the clues we were given and what we had all noticed throughout the dinner.
Being organized served us well: We ended up winning.
But even we missed a few key points — and some of these bizarre twists were totally fascinating, even though I knew they were hokey and made up. The producers wrote the plot like a soap opera, and everyone was delighted to find out additional details at the very end.
5) It makes you feel purposeful
One of my teammates, Jaye Avery, brought her aunt and her cousin with her to Maggiano’s. The trio had previously attended a similar murder mystery at Bistro Romano.
“They love crime and drama,” she said about her relatives. “We love watching shows and trying to figure out who did what to who.”
Unlike the passive guessing games of a network series, wherein the characters do most of the grunt work for you, a dinner theater experience fully invites you to become involved as a Sherlock Holmes.
You’re given a purpose, and everybody — whether you’re a film noir junkie or just attending a friend’s birthday party — can’t help but want to feel useful.
6) There’s a built-in feeling of accomplishment
In the end, all I got out of my arduous, drinking-impaired mental labor and strained collaboration skills — aka bossiness (okay I admit it, I was bossy) — were a couple of Dollar Tree quality measuring spoons with a Maggiano’s logo slapped onto them.
But I felt like I had accomplished something. I was a winner, not so much because I technically did win (yep, yep), but because I thoroughly enjoyed myself while playing.
And I’m pretty sure everyone that attended did too, regardless of whether they were awarded beer koozies or gift certificates.
Murder mysteries are only one subcategory of dinner theater you can lose yourself at in Philly. Boozy drag queen brunches are also having a heyday in the city and surrounding ‘burbs. And the elaborate ’30s and ’40s Russian-style dinner theater is poised to make a comeback in, of all places, Fishtown, from the same crew that runs dinner-theater-slash-nightclub Golden Gates in Northeast Philly.
The next show at Maggiano’s is on July 21 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., and 100% of the proceeds will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.