By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 23, 2020 at 04:33 PM EST
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Credit: Jeff Lorch

How to present live theater in the time of COVID-19 is a mystery that lovers of the art form are trying to solve.

With stages likely to remain shuttered or severely reduced in capacity until an effective vaccine is widely distributed, theaters around the world are searching for ways to continue to reach their audiences. Citizen Detective, which kicked off Nov. 10 at the Geffen Stayhouse — the at-home iteration of Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse — is one such experiment.

Using the famous 1920s unsolved slaying of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor as a jumping-off point, the show invites audiences to become part of the action in a blend of live performance and interactive game. The evening is hosted by true-crime author Mickie McKittrick (Mike Ostroski), who leads attendees through the potential suspects in the Taylor case to hunt for new answers. There's one other performer, Andrea (Paloma Nozicka), a Mickie McKittrick superfan who functions as a twist on an audience plant to help move the story along.

Written and directed by Chelsea Marcantel, Citizen Detective is a noble stab at creating theater for our virtual age. Using videoconferencing technology, it asks viewers to actively take part in the show rather than sit back in the shadows of the theater (for those who prefer their theater sans audience participation, this is probably not the event for you). It's not so much a play as it is an interactive murder mystery — like Clue meets a virtual escape room.

Credit: Geffen Playhouse

The plot is largely reflective, teaching us how to be and interrogating the role of the citizen detective. Via McKittrick, it ponders the armchair sleuth and our collective cultural obsession with true crime, whether it comes via books, podcasts, or television series. There's a bit of moralizing, meant to rightfully chastise those who seek to solve crimes for public accolades. "It's not about you, it's about arriving at the truth," McKittrick tells us at one point.

There are also some brief swipes at digging deeper, a notion that perhaps true-crime stories are our modern version of folk tales. We circle back through real cases again and again as perhaps some way of teaching and learning grander lessons about morality, justice, and the arc of the universe — fairy tales with a side of murder.

There's an argument to be made that the game might be more effective with a completely invented case, or at least one not as well known as the Taylor murder. Audience familiarity will undoubtably vary, and a fictional case might lessen some of the show's message, though there's likely still a way to accomplish both and arrive at a more satisfying conclusion than this leaves.

One small quibble is that some of the show's climax hinges on the supposition that the Hollywood studios kept everything pertinent to their history, secret and otherwise. But the fact of the matter is that the studios in the 1920s had a very weak grasp on the notion that they were making history; studio documents and films of this era are lost or destroyed because they were considered disposable. Anyone who's spent any time considering movie history knows that film preservation, both of the films themselves and anything associated with their making, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Working with a real case, this jarringly incorrect assumption takes some wind out of the show's sails.

All in all, Citizen Detective is a diverting evening, a combination of game night with a theatrical endeavor, that at least offers some clues as how to execute entertaining interactive virtual theater — if it doesn't quite crack the case entirely. Grade: B

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