An Interactive Murder Mystery Party Game


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Sunday, August 23, 1992

A Murder Mystery as the Main Course

By Carlotta Gulvas Swarden


Murder is on the menu at Il Giordano, a restaurant in Cedar Knolls. Given passports stamped "Mustique Island, the Grenadines," guests are immediately embroiled in Murder To Go's mystery dinner-theater play, "Noir suspicions," set in a nightclub atmosphere of the 1940's. They may be handcuffed by the local detective or cajoled into buying stolen goods from black-market dealers, or find themselves the object of sultry seduction.

Gone are the days when audiences were merely handed voting cards to guess the murderer at the end of the evening. Today's theatrical whodunits directly involve the audience in each act of the play.

Murder mystery theater is flourishing in New Jersey. After reaching its apex of popularity in the late 1980's, the concept ran out of steam, virtually disappearing from the entertainment scene by 1989. But mystery troupes' ranks have grown from one in 1990 to six today.

Those in the business say the growth is directly related to the economics of the times, the heightened interest and participation of the corporate world and a cultlike following of murder mystery fans.

Along the way, the murder mystery has changed in form, population and milieu. What once ran as a long, expensive weekend event at hotels has now been altered to single evening performances in restaurants and corporate board rooms. And troupes that have played to audiences of 500 are now finding new and repeat patrons in groups of 50 to 100 who enjoy participating in the solution of the crime.

In 1990, Murder to Go was the only such show in the state; now, five other companies compete.

Murder to Go says it was the first troupe to titillate would-be detectives, by staging a murder mystery aboard a train, the Murder Express, in 1982. As the pioneer in this genre, which began in New Jersey and spread to 12 cities across the country, Murder To Go in its heyday from 1983 to 1985 performed on the Queen Elizabeth 2 and in major hotel chains throughout Bermuda and Africa.

David Landau, producer and playwright for the Florham Park-based Murder to Go, attributes the changing fortunes of the mystery to economics. "Whenever the economy is unstable," he said, "people seek out some form of entertainment or escape which allows them to see that good can triumph over evil. They need to see that there is some stability, even if it is just for three hours on a given night."

The murder mystery has also moved into the corporate world as a managerial education tool, Mr. Landau said. His group has performed for such companies as Nabisco and American Telephone and Telegraph and the Nick at Nite cable network.

"We do what is called team building exercises," he said. "It is a way to have people who work in the same department but not together tackle a project and in so doing learn more about each other and develop a spirit of competition."

John Licardi, staff supervisor for A.T. & T. in Basking Ridge, hired Murder to Go to stage one of these sessions at the Cross Mansion in Morristown. Using corporate programs provided to him, Mr.Landau wrote a mystery for the teams to solve.

"It was really tailor-made to our company," Mr. Licardi said. "It is very much like networking within your own corporation. It successfully breaks down barriers that people have because they don't work with each other on a daily basis. It gets people talking and working together on a common goal. We received nothing but raves about the experience."

Other Articles
Dramatists Guild Quarterly, 1996
Life Magazine, November, 1984
People Magazine, September 3, 1984
USA Today, September 21, 1983
Business Week, September 26, 1983
The National Enquirer, May 22, 1984

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