On Feb. 2, 1922, the physique of the Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor, shot as soon as in the again, was discovered on the ground of his plush Los Angeles bungalow. The crime stays unsolved — till you log in.
The Taylor homicide offers the chilled backbone for “Citizen Detective,” a playful, barely sinister new Zoom expertise from the Geffen Playhouse, which has briefly rebranded because the Stayhouse. With “The Present,” “Inside the Box” and now “Citizen Detective,” this firm has cornered the American market on agreeable on-line theater that runs and runs and runs. (Maybe they might share this know-how with some main nonprofits in New York, the place efforts are paltry by comparability?)
Chelsea Marcantel, the present’s playwright and director, has cannily structured it as a web based seminar in which the best-selling crime author Mickie McKittrick (Mike Ostroski) coaches beginner gumshoes (that’s us ticket holders) on the finer factors of homicide fixing. This is, McKittrick says, “a golden age of citizen detective work.” His coaching session, he says, will assist us to sleuth ethically and extra successfully, utilizing the Taylor case as a mannequin.
A preshow survey types the viewers members — about 40 on opening night time — into six working teams. Mine? It was known as Mixed Nuts: 4 ladies in glasses, plus an identical twin brothers. After McKittrick’s introduction, breakout rooms open, and every group sifts by a specific tranche of Taylor proof. Then they return to the primary assembly to argue guilt and innocence. Barring a twist or two and a handful of preposterously straightforward puzzles, that’s the present.
Theatrically, that is very skinny stuff, a sugar wafer of a play. Only two credited actors seem: Ostroski’s tweed-jacketed, self-satisfied creator and Paloma Nozicka as Andrea, his overeager protégée. (Andrea hosts a podcast known as “Hit Me Baby With True Crime.”) There’s additionally a home supervisor, uncredited, who does loads of heavy preshow lifting — the get together chat equal of CrossFit. Is there additionally a celeb cameo? Let’s go away thriller.
The flimsiness of character and dialogue shifts the burden — of each narrative and proof — onto the viewers, although participation stays voluntary. How a lot crime and true crime leisure a given crowd consumes shades the night. A lady in my group briskly dismissed a suspect as too apparent. “In ‘Law & Order,’ in the first half, you always think it’s that person, but it’s not,” she stated. Personal expertise additionally colours case idea. The chief of 1 group, the Creative Types, proposed an alternate suspect, the sufferer’s accountant. “It’s because I’m a C.P.A.,” he stated. “I’m just trying to give equal time to the accountants of this world.”
This interactivity, nevertheless idiosyncratic, doesn’t alter the present a lot. The script rolls on regardless, although a choose-your-own-adventure component does floor towards the top. But Marcantel clearly enjoys the net kind, neatly juxtaposing the workaday instruments of up to date on-line tradition — polls, slides, breakout rooms, display sharing, chat, the mute button — with a lurid case practically a century chilly.
And the case itself is fascinating. So fascinating, in reality — with its cocaine, blackmailers, youngster starlets, two (two!) sinister valets and Mabel Normand — that I didn’t understand it was an actual incident till embarrassingly late in the night. (I then stayed up even later, reading.) Those who have seen the musical “Mack & Mabel” will have a virtual leg up. They won’t have to use that leg to kick themselves, like I did.
If “Citizen Detective” isn’t much of a play, it is still, for anyone who likes to shout back at cop shows or flip to end of a murder mystery to see if they guessed right, appealing entertainment. For extra fun, switch your Zoom window to gallery view to see your fellow solvers cogitating furiously in the glow of their screens, endlessly hopeful that their theories about bullet trajectories and abandoned daughters might just make a cold case warm.
Through Feb. 7, 2021; geffenplayhouse.org.