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Review: CITIZEN DETECTIVE at Geffen Playhouse: Chelsea Marcantel's Play Stirs The Pot Without Setting it Aboil

With audience members playing detectove, whodunit is almost besides the point.

Review: CITIZEN DETECTIVE at Geffen Playhouse: Chelsea Marcantel's Play Stirs The Pot Without Setting it Aboil

A silent film director has been found dead in his apartment under the most suspicious of circumstances. The suspects are plentiful, the evidence inconclusive. The case is as cold as an ice fisherman's outhouse. Clearly it's time to bring in the that the amateurs.

That would be us, the titular gumshoes of Chelsea Marcantel's CITIZEN DETECTIVE, an interactive Zoom play produced by The Geffen Playhouse. Dispatching an expert true crime writer as host and guide, playwright and director Marcentel puts a different audience on the case with the tease that the conclusions and results could vary and the case could be differently cracked with every performance, every new group of shamuses (shami?)

Yes and no. Figuring out whodunit feels like a bonus of this diverting if light slice of drama rather than its primary aim. CITIZEN DETECTIVE is more concerned with getting us to talk, think and work together toward a shared goal. If we reveal a bit about ourselves as we do so, all the better Certainly that interaction - any interaction - is welcome. After more than 10 months of playhouses made dark by the pandemic, coming together (even remotely) to be part of a good yarn is an appealing prospect.

And this particular tale has offered some serious intrigue for nearly a century. The unsolved 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor (AKA "WDT") is shrouded with starlets and shady characters, drugs, thugs, stage mothers and servants. Mabel Normand, the first actress ever to be hit with a pie in the face, is one of about seven suspects we are asked to consider. As would normally happen in a more traditional staged mystery, we never actually meet the victim or any of the suspects in person. We review their files which are provided to us by Mickie McKittrick (played by Mike Ostroski), an avuncular if encouraging true crime author. Other than two other performers whose identities will not be revealed here, the players are the detectives.

The detectives are divided into six groups with each group given a snippet of the case's evidence that we are asked to review for clues during a 15-minute breakout session. We each get a suspect whose motive we consider. We deputize a spokesperson who presents the group's findings to McKittrick once the action of the play resumes. Both during the breakout sessions and within the play itself, the atmosphere is welcoming and congenial. Even if you're not your group's presenter, there are plenty of opportunities to chime in until the play moves toward its conclusion and the course of the narrative takes over. The bearded and bow-tie wearing Ostroski makes McKittrick the expert in the room, but our host is never overbearing or dismissive.

Also there are polls and votes - opportunities to eliminate some suspects and hang others which brings to mind the action of Rupert Holmes' artful Tony-winner THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. In DROOD, it will be remembered, the actors bring the action right up to where Charles Dickens had left the source novel unfinished, then polls the audience to choose the murderer, after which the players act out the conclusion based on the vote.

CITIZEN DETECTIVE ain't that, although there are times, even when things take a turn for the ominous, when one wishes it were just so we could get the satisfaction of an ending. The WDT murder, remember, is a real life case which both opens up how any present day audience can consider it and hamstrings them. As interested as Marcentel might be in trying to actually solve this case, her greater point - driven home by a surprise guest - is about the value of storytelling. Well and good, but any would-be crime-solvers in attendance may feel a bit cheated.

So consider the evidence and deduce away, but at the end of these 85 minutes, you will end up right back where you began.

Photo courtesy of The Geffen Playhouse

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