The Murder Mystery Company (2.5 stars)

Before giving my thoughts on the Murder Mystery Company, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m the founder and managing editor of Events INSIDER, and you may have noticed that the website has no advertisements. That’s because I run Events INSIDER to support the arts, and unlike some theatre revewers, I take no pleasure in saying negative things. I don’t like the abusive reviews you’ll find elsewhere, where the reviewer gets an ego boost from exaggerating the negatives, and I forbid my own reviewers from writing in that tone. We support the arts.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I must tell you that The Murder Mystery Company was bad on every level, easily outpaced by local competitors The Dinner Detective (4 stars) and The Mystery Train (5 stars).

The show comes in various themes, this one being “Crime and Pun-ishment”, and is franchised from The Murder Mystery Company in Michigan, with shows in 34 cities. In Overland Park, it takes place at Stanford’s Comedy Club, which for a small location has an impressive schedule of comics, including the upcoming Chris Kattan of Saturday Night Live, November 20-21.

The venue explains everything about the production. A comedy club is an adult setting that draws a crowd that expects to drink heavily and laugh at raunchy and titillating comedy. The audience is not really in the mood to solve a clever mystery, the staff rely too much on improv, and the noisy venue is not suited to thinking about clues. I will go so far as to say that the experience was not a theatre show. Instead it was a party game, like trivia night. They seemed to have no manager to keep it under control.

The evening began with waiting in a 20-minute line that was caused by their having only one waitress to seat each party. They could have allocated tables by putting checkmarks onto a printed map of the space, and just told people what number table to go to. Although I arrived with enthusiasm, this deflated it, and the problems just continued. The tables were packed too tight for eating dinner. Salads were available on the table, but with no water when we arrived, and it took far too long for drink orders, because the room of 150 people only had 4 servers. Bars create false intimacy with loud music, so that you and your date can feel alone. The loud music they played to start the evening was a complete mismatch with their instructions to get to know the others at our table. I already hated the experience and it hadn’t even started yet.

Before I continue to complain, let me note the price. The Murder Mystery Company event at this location costs $60, plus drinks and tip, so guests can reasonably expect good service, good food, and a great performance. So I don’t believe that my concerns should be waived away with, “It’s just a bar, a comedy club. What do you expect? Just come to get smashed and don’t worry.”

Before the stage show began, costumed actors handed us a binder of “clues”, told us to read the first one, and then asked us to visit the other tables and exchange clues. We had little enthusiasm for this when we didn’t know the setting, no one had yet been murdered, and we didn’t feel we knew what was going on.

The stage show began by inviting 16 audience members to come onto stage and read their “character” sheets. The host did a bit of improv with each one that failed for three reasons. First, amateurs reading a character sheet on stage is boring. Second, as an audience we had no context for what was happening. And third, to include the event’s cast, that made for more than 20 suspects. Only if you took furious notes, including visual hints to the appearance of each character, could you possibly follow what was going on… and it’s hard to be entertained when you’re writing as quickly as you can.

Someone did eventually die, but the show was unstructured, with no script, and crowd work that seemed mechanical rather than original. The primary cast had fun hamming it up as loud mouthed caricatures, but in a way that got old and had no depth. The mystery should have intrigued us, inspiring us to chase down clues. Instead, it seemed so obviously overcomplicated that only two of us at my table of 8 made an attempt.

The show continued to vary between short stage shows and overly long “let’s mingle” sessions, while dinner was served. Dinner came late, again because of insufficient waitstaff, and the meal was mediocre, far too basic for expectations set by the ticket price. It was good that they assigned each table to work together, because it gave us an excuse to chat, and I did enjoy the costumes of the attendees, motivated by a costume competition. The costumes of the cast were acceptable but unimpressive, and there was no staging or scenery. The noise from the packed crowd of 150 guests continued to make it uncomfortable to hold conversations, and I even got muscled by some patrons who presumably had been drinking and did not think that gee, maybe we shouldn’t push people around, this is not a mosh pit.

I wish I could stop there. We then discovered that the entire first act had been a red herring. There was some more crowd work, but with so many loose ends, a lack of structure… even I, an enthusiast, gave up on the mystery.

Comedy clubs live or die based on their promoter, so here’s my guess as to what happened. The owner of the club decided to try the Murder Mystery Company, but squeeze it as a cash cow. That led to insuffient waitstaff being hired, the cheap quality of the food, and the main actors not having a manager. It led to the event being more of a bar game than an theatre show with a stage-savvy manager. It led to a lack of hiring strong actors, and to not really caring about the quality of the show. I see this with Halloween attractions all the time. Often the more commercially successful ventures are run by businesspeople without the theatrical skill or artistic ambition to make good on the promise of their slick advertising.

Honestly, the whole thing was chaos, incompetently managed, which I take no joy in communicating to you, and is not an exaggeration. Even though as press I got my tickets for free, my guest and I left the venue 2 hours into the production. In my review of The Dinner Detective, I found a few structural flaws in the show but assured you that any murder mystery dinner is a fun night out. I was wrong. I regret I can only give the Murder Mystery Company 2.5 stars, and recommend you try local competitors The Dinner Detective and Mystery Train instead.