A Lullaby of Murder | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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A Lullaby of Murder




Tommy Gun's Garage

Dinner theater used to mean two separate events--dinner followed by theater. But lately dinner theater has become interactive and theme-related, a play within a meal with the diners part of the process. This new form has been purveyed by, among others, the Set Gourmet Theatre, the King's Manor, the Dry Gulch, the Mystery Cafe at the Essex Inn, and in Shear Madness at the Mayfair Theatre, this last without food.

If this craving to be center stage is a true audience demand, and not just a way to market restaurants by combining two appetites, it's a backhanded compliment to the realism of theater. In the past live actors have lifted stage dramas above the level of the boob tube and the silver screen. With the new dinner theater, the living audience matters just as much.

Tommy Gun's Garage--a shrine to Chicago's now-out-of-favor gangster days--has jumped onto the interactive bandwagon with A Lullaby of Murder. But unfortunately this show is a sleeper in the worst sense, its aliveness killed off by a silly script.

Set on a Hollywood soundstage (no hoodlums in this show), Lullaby is a sloppy, slapdash murder mystery/revue written and staged by the usually reliable Mary Ellen McGarry. It concerns--what else?--an unsolved murder. Like The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Shear Madness, audience members--here supposedly film extras--must pick both murderer and motive. (Those coming closest to the truth get to go up onstage to receive prizes.)

The corpse is Cecil B. Mealymouth, a cameraman who was poisoned on the first day of filming a musical, "The French Foreign Legion," a 1929 talkie from Ess & Emm Moving Pictures. A second murder is thrown in for good measure, the victim a stand-in who turns out to be Merle Oberon. The "clues" are the glass Cecil drank from before he died, the rushes that just might depict his demise, and a stolen letter.

The suspects include the over-married vamp Gloria Swansong, who's blackmailing her jealous rival Harriet Hope, a ruthless climber. Harriet is in love with matinee idol Douglas Fairshakes, a dweeb who resented Cecil's rise to the top in Hollywood. Equally suspicious are taciturn supporting actor Techs Arcane; Lina von Waddayamean, a ferocious Teutonic techie also envious of Cecil's success; David O. Seltzer, the klutzy, insecure gofer; and schizophrenic director Eric von Strokeme, a crypto-Fascist with a mean case of twin personalities.

A good murder mystery makes you want to discover the killer. Not this one. We never know the victim well enough to care who killed him. Even by the modest standards of the genre, the play is soporific, so cluttered and crudely assembled it seems at best improvised, at worst unfinished. Nothing suggests the polish of the Set's An Affair of State or even its addlepated At the Reunion.

So frenzied it verges on incoherence, the tedious first half fritters away interest by assaulting us with pointless pratfalls and an onslaught of period songs: "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," "Sheik of Araby," "Hooray for Hollywood," "You're the Top." Appealing as these songs are, they seem to come from an entirely different show. The ballads (mostly written after 1929) come out of nowhere, tell us nothing about the characters who sing them, and offer no clues for audience sleuthing. And in one inept and deadly section a film segment--supposedly the rushes of the first day's shooting--is shown in a silence broken only by what seem to be the actors' desperate improvs. The film takes its own sweet time to tell us nothing.

The relentless action persists even through the first course, when audience attention is usually devoted to the food and private conversation. The fare was fine enough not to need this distraction, and you had to pity the diners who, brought up onstage for a stunt, had to eat their salad under the spotlights.

The post-entree half contains the obligatory grilling of suspects by a detective. Weighed down with 11th-hour revelations of backstage romances and political shenanigans, the belated exposition is complicated without being cunning. Worse, it comes too late to matter; the connections between the accused and Cecil remain unfocused and arbitrary; and when the verdict comes it feels anticlimactic.

Lullaby does work as a three-hour showcase for its wait staff/performers. Their talent shines through this amateurish mess. Even singing to two bewildered audience volunteers, Jenni Ryan, as Gloria Swansong, belts out a sultry "Let's Do It." Thomas Gregory Studer, the histrionic director von Strokeme, manages to come apart at the seams with crazy conviction. Cory Goodrich's Harriet Hope bubbles over with what used to be called moxie or pizzazz, and Regina Gadotti tears into "You Made Me Love You" hard enough to make Jolson wince.

The real pile-driving talent here is also the most self-effacing: accompanist Paul Asaro has a rich honky-tonk flair and a stride technique that recalls Fats Waller in his prime. If only the rest of Lullaby were as fun as the way he tickles the ivories.

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