Star-Bulletin Features

The cast of "Ding Dong! Death Calling" relishes in murder and mischief over dinner.

D&B serves foul play
fun with dinner

By Keiko Kiele Akana-Gooch

Suzette Abernathy would do anything to be crowned "Queen of Cosmetics," succeeding Terry Fay, the aging founder of a cosmetics line in her name.

In fact, every Terry Fay girl is dying to win the top position of the multimillion dollar cosmetic company. But Abernathy is relentless, pursuing an affair with Terry Fay's son and then blackmailing him with revealing photos of their relations. Sure enough, Abernathy takes the throne, only to die soon thereafter from powdering her nose with fatal face powder.

If this sounds like another episode of Columbo, think again, Sherlock. And if you're waiting for Jessica Fletcher to jump in with her uncanny detective wit, then you've really been watching too much TV. Time to enter a different realm of murder-mystery thrillers, where you bust out your own plaid trench coat and magnifying glass and step into some detective shoes.

Murder, mystery, comedy and food. It's been a winning combination for Murder Mystery Players Inc., which works out of Dave & Busters locations across America. The company began in Dallas in 1987 and has expanded to several other D&B locations nationwide.

Company founder and president James Konopa said their Texas murder mystery dinners attract steady crowds of 80 percent to 90 percent capacity.

After finding its way to Hawaii through D&B Honolulu, Murder Mystery Players is trying to find its niche here.

Mystery Dinner Theatre

Performances of "Ding Dong! Death Calling":
Showtime: 8 p.m. Thursday and Aug. 8
Place: Dave & Busters, Ward Entertainment Complex
Cost: $34.95 per person, plus tax and gratuity
Phone: 589-2215; reservations required

Their first two productions in Honolulu have attracted "a pretty decent audience," said show director Karen "Bree" Bumatai. "We've had a great time."

"We would like to have larger audiences" in Hawaii, Konopa said, "but we're doing OK."

D&B Honolulu sales assistant Susie Schoales said their showroom has seated, on average, 60 people at murder mystery dinners. That's less than half the room's 130-person capacity, which might be attributed to summer doldrums and a little experimentation.

Konopa said the company has never before had Thursday-night performances and is experimenting in Hawaii.

The remaining performances of the current production, "Ding Dong! Death Calling," about Suzette Abernathy and Terry Fay Cosmetics, are July 25 and Aug. 8. After Abernathy's murder is staged, the audience gets to interrogate the characters. Konopa suggests to audience members, "Listen closely and then try to ask the most appropriate questions."

Tables of patrons work together to identify the murderer and motive. The table whose answers are closest to being correct wins D&B game cards. Ties are decided by a game of jan-ken-po or random drawing.

Bumatai tries to give the Dallas-produced scripts a local flavor. While some scripts like "Ding Dong! Death Calling" aren't easily localized, she at least changes the names of people and places.

Even with a script, improvisation is crucial to the production. Bumatai said actors sometimes sit on the dinner table among the audience and strike up a conversation.

"That's when it's the most fun," she said.

But this requires professional actors, who are given 10 to 14 days to learn their lines and four or five days for rehearsal.

"It's a paid gig for actors, and there aren't many paid gigs for actors in Hawaii," Bumatai said. "This requires people to be on their mark. This is not a place for brand-new actors. Things happen. Sometimes we get off the script."

Add to that several different endings to the mystery, including a different killer and motive, and it becomes clear why this performance is paid.

"The actors have learned all five endings," Bumatai said. "I like to try and mix it up and try to fool the audience."

Comedy is of utmost importance. From a book of 50 scripts, all are comical. And Bumatai's casts relish in it.

"We try to make it as funny as we possibly can," she said.

THE BLEND of murder, mystery, comedy and audience interaction provides a universal appeal.

"Kids love to try and solve the crime," Bumatai said.

Murder Mystery Players Inc. caters to private parties, with prices starting at $1,250 based on location and party size. One of the key ingredients to their success -- food -- must also be provided for the performance. Simply put, "It plays better with meals," Bumatai said.

Besides their two-hour murder-mystery dinners, the company puts on corporate team-building games, scavenger hunts and a newlywed-type game, all of which are held privately at D&Bs.

The team-building game "Mission Task Force" is Murder Mystery Players' most popular event, Konopa said. The game is run by video, with an agent directing the activities. Fun challenges and teamwork help players become better acquainted with their co-workers. The 45-minute game starts at $250 for up to 30 players.

The scavenger hunt lasts for an hour-and-a-half, with players usually accomplishing only 80 percent of the hunt, which spans four pages. The hunt starts at $475 for up to 30 people.

"He Said! She Said!" is the Players' version of the newlywed game, except it's not just for newlyweds. For $295 per half-hour show, three to five couples -- employees, friends and partners -- answer questions about each other. The couple who answers the most questions right, proving they know each other best, wins.

For those wanting a little more action, there's "Carpenter House Caper" and "Mrs. Goody's Bad Night," two guest-interactive comedies in which 12 people work with two actors to perform a one-and-a-half-hour murder-mystery theatrical. Both productions are $650 each.

Expect more games to come, with Murder Mystery Players in constant development of new entertainment. The next murder mystery dinner, "An Act of Murder," starts Aug. 22 and will continue through Nov. 14.

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