Theater Review: Citizen Detective, a Virtual Production from the Geffen Playhouse

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

Capitalizing on the true crime craze with their latest virtual production, the Geffen Playhouse continues to establish themselves as the preeminent source for virtual Los Angeles theater in pandemic times. Their latest “Geffen Stayhouse” offering, Citizen Detective, is part murder mystery party, part escape room, and part history lesson that cold case aficionados and Old Hollywood buffs will eat up.

Photo Courtesy of Geffen Playhouse

Written and directed by Chelsea Marcantel, the performance is structured as a seminar hosted by fictional true crime author Mickie McKittrick (Mike Ostroski). As with previous offerings The Present and Inside the Box (still running), the fun begins before the show. A week in advance, participants are sent a brief survey and personality quiz, allegedly to determine which small group they are best suited for. It is unclear if this has any actual impact on the proceedings, but it is certainly a unique detail. Ninety minutes prior to showtime, a portion of a case file arrives via email. Each small group (I was part of the “Gut Followers”) is assigned one of six suspects. After a brief introduction, breakout rooms are created for participants to debate their suspect’s guilt or innocence, as well as analyze the materials to decide which clues are most relevant to present to the larger group.

Photo Courtesy of Geffen Playhouse

Interestingly, the case in question is a real and famous cold case—the murder of William Desmond Taylor, a film director and actor who was murdered in 1922. The crime remains unsolved today, so take from that what you will in terms of how much of a “conclusion” the story of Citizen Detective will reach. Since each small group has different pieces of information, a nominated spokesperson from each then presents a summary to the complete audience (each performance consists of 24 households), with McKittrick filling in any gaps. This part of the show moved the most slowly, but the producers make full use of many Zoom features to keep things interactive, including pop-up polls and the chat function. There is one other character, a millennial named Andrea (Paloma Nozicka) who hosts a podcast called Hit Me Baby With True Crime and loves to annoy McKittrick with her boundless enthusiasm.

Photo Courtesy of Geffen Playhouse

The end of the show is the most interesting and fun, as the story shifts to suggest someone nefarious may want to prevent this case from being solved. McKittrick’s old-school approach clashes with Andrea’s love of Reddit, and at one point, the entire group gets five minutes to discuss favorite suspects. While the audience participation aspect can largely be as much or as little as you wish, a fair amount of people chimed in with fun theories, creating a collaborative atmosphere. At the end, there is a surprise cameo, as well as a semi-successful attempt to bring the story full circle by asking participants to examine why they like true crime, which many acknowledge to be a problematic obsession.

Technologically, the Geffen continues to have an excellent handle on the possibilities of virtual theater, creating an impressively seamless experience. Unlike Inside the Box, which many audience members treated as a family affair, Citizen Detective is just as fun to participate in alone, especially since you get to interact directly with a small group anyway.

Photo Courtesy of Geffen Playhouse

I cannot help but wonder if this format might be even more enjoyable with a purely fictional crime at its center. The Taylor murder has been depicted often in media, and as we learn from McKittrick, over 300 people have confessed to it over time. It feels like retreading familiar territory, and the fact that it is notoriously unsolved prevents a sense of closure—not that this bothers everyone, considering the popularity of such shows as Unsolved Mysteries. And by the end, the audience does get to collectively decide on a theory, even though its correctness cannot be proven. None of the decision-making required is particularly difficult, including a series of puzzles and anagrams at the end that will please those who loved Inside the Box. Overall, Citizen Detective is a fun and creative opportunity to play detective and experience some human interaction in a time when we cannot physically go to the theater.

Citizen Detective runs through February 7th. The running time is 85 minutes, no intermission. Tickets are currently priced at $65 per household and can be purchased here. The first batch through December 20th is currently sold out, but tickets for the extension go on sale November 27th at 10am PST. Internet access with a free Zoom account and audio/video capabilities is required to participate. This production is recommended for ages 13 and up.


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