12 Angry Diners

Dramatic justice not served by dinner theater's interactive courtroom melodrama

It's no longer enough that several legitimate stages are regularly afflicted with bad theater. Now it's tailing us to the places where we go to eat and shop, as well. Just a week or so ago at a local mall, a man dressed as a taco followed me to my car, where he sang to me about fat-free salsa then forced me to take a cents-off coupon for the stuff.

A few nights later, I attended something called The Mysterious Death of Johnny Ringo, an interactive murder-mystery dinner-theater piece at a restaurant in Tempe. Plum Creek Ranch Steakhouse is the kind of devil-may-care haunt where peanuts are served as an appetizer and patrons are encouraged, 1960s-like, to throw the shells--sans souci--on the floor; the parking lot is patrolled by a guy in a coyote suit who's paid to wave to traffic.

Apparently, that wasn't enough to attract hungry customers, so Plum Creek manager Gene Roden corralled some pals to produce a play about a dead gunfighter. "I'm trying to get Tempe on the map as far as Western entertainment goes," Roden says. "I wanted to bring in something that combined Arizona history with some comedy."

Roden is failing rather spectacularly. Johnny Ringo provides neither humor nor history lesson: I didn't laugh once, and I already knew who Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were before sitting through this mercifully short "play," which attempts to probe the unsolved death of its title character, a real-life bandito of Arizona's Wild West.

Johnny Ringo doesn't resort to tedious theatrical traditions like scene changes or trained actors who remember their lines. Instead, this rootin'-tootin' historical melodrama is set staidly in a courtroom, and the audience--seated before chipped plates heaped with cubed steak--acts as a jury that must decide who killed this obscure varmint.

"I wanted dinner theater, but not one of them murder-mystery things that everyone's doin'," Roden told me. "I seen a couple of them, and they just really weren't very good."

In the great tradition of dinner theater, Johnny Ringo really isn't very good, either. The play, like the handful of books about the Southwest that bother to mention him, tells us that Ringo was one of the Arizona Territory's most feared and deadly gunfighters, and that he was found shot to death in 1882, an apparent suicide. Industrial-pipe-fitter-turned-playwright James Davis thinks otherwise. He's convinced, after considerable research, that Ringo was cut down by one of the notorious desperadoes he chummed with.

"I'd never written a play before," Davis told me, "but I wanted to investigate Johnny's death and prove he didn't kill himself."

Opportunity knocked when Roden invited Davis to create a play that could run indefinitely at Plum Creek. Davis thinks he's uniquely qualified to sleuth the Southwest: When he isn't fitting pipes, he runs Southwest Legends Gunfighters, an Old West reenactment group that stages fake gunfights at local YMCAs and events like the Special Olympics. Although Davis admits that the members of his troupe aren't actors "in the usual sense," they do have a way with their spurs, chaps and bustles.

"We've got some of the best Western costumes in Arizona," Davis told me. "It's pretty important to a show like this to have authentic clothing and guns and stuff."

While Johnny Ringo's fabulous duds made for enigmatic Shanelike atmospherics, our entrees provided other, more frightening challenges. I'm sure that Plum Creek serves a swell porterhouse, but its dinner-theater fare is the sort of scary sludge that's rarely seen outside grade school cafeterias. No one at my table--which seated 20--finished the meal, although the woman across from me took hers home in a doggy bag. ("My schnauzer will eat anything," she confided.)

And, as for cooperative theater, even audience members who'd been coaxed into braying scripted lines seemed bored. Pressed into accepting one-line "roles" in this poky play, hapless diners were served tiny scripts with their entrees and told to bellow their single line on cue. Each outburst was greeted by enthusiastic gavel-pounding by our enormously fey judge, who either fined the would-be actor two bits or sentenced him to several minutes in "jail," a large cardboard box positioned near the stage.

I arrived pretty much expecting to hate every minute of The Mysterious Death of Johnny Ringo, but the other people at my table seemed genuinely surprised to discover they were having a lousy time. After the judge fined one of our tablemates for "talking to her neighbor," Sheila, a cosmetologist seated on my left, rolled her eyes and muttered, "I paid $25 for this?" Fifteen minutes into Ringo's trial, she headed for the ladies' room ("Cowgirl's Outhouse"), never to return.

My companion suggested we follow Sheila, but I was determined to stay for the finale, which I was betting would involve gunfire and a phony noose. I was not disappointed. After one of the suspects was gunned down near the salad bar, someone named Buckskin Leslie was dragged off to the paperboard pokey in the corner, and the rest of us scrambled like roaches for the nearest exit.

"I haven't seen the whole thing yet," Roden admitted when I spoke to him the next day. "But I do know that the show's a whole lot more fun when we don't have an audience that just sits there and refuses to get involved in the action."

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