Sarah Michelle Gellar fans who missed Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Musical’s latest run at the Funhouse Lounge, should consider attending the venue’s next installment of their improv pop culture spoof series. Billed as “Scooby-Doo meets Saw,” Murder Mystery Machine takes Scoob and the gang and plops them wherever the audience chooses, solving a mystery more grisly than their misadventures on Zombie Island. Jigsaw (the antagonist from the Saw franchise) and his moralistic torture traps only appear in the audience’s imagination, but fair warning: the first four rows of Funhouse Lounge’s new theater seating arrangement will get wet during murders.
Good improv relies on actors’ wits and chemistry, and Murder Mystery Machine’s cast play well off each other. They never take themselves or the setting too seriously, but each actor did bring their own fresh twist to classic characters, and enough focus to make it clear they weren’t just winging it. In the performance I attended, Funhouse owner Andy Barrett played Shaggy, while Landy Lamb was Velma, Lauren Allison portrayed Daphne, Josh Payne took on the character of Fred, and Bobbi Kaye Kupfner inhabited the spirit of Scooby-Doo.
Murder Mystery Machine actors swap roles each night, and most play more than one character, shifting wigs to keep the audience guessing who the killer could be. While aspects of the plot are predetermined, this is still improv, and multiple viewings are required to see all of Murder Mystery Machine’s possible outcomes. With a different aftershow each night (dominatrix-led improv followed the performance I attended), it could be worth coming back to find out.
After unmasking an audience volunteer as the villain of their last solved case, Mystery Inc. headed to a dilapidated mall, prompted by a call from the audience for places people used to enjoy visiting. Fred is then summoned by his pervy Uncle Eugene (Barrett), who needs “young, but legal, college teens” to help him revive a business that failed under suspicious circumstances.
Absurd wordplay factors heavily in Murder Mystery Machine’s humor. Most of the stores in Uncle Eugene’s mall are just words with double meanings, or two words that rhyme, regardless of whether or not they should be businesses at all. “Food Court” is a Sbarro and Subway littered with legal documents, while “Meat and Feet” gives customers unspecific cold cuts with their pedicures. The mall’s too-generic local teens, however, seemed like a missed opportunity to play with Saw’s famously 2D archetypes, or shuttle in sacrificial kids from horror film locales such as Haddonfield or Camp Crystal Lake.
Standouts from the production include Lamb, who hilariously hits Velma’s requisite “Jinkies!” and glasses gags, Barrett’s Shaggy voice (which gives Matthew Lillard a run for his live-action legacy), and Allison’s smoldering chemistry with Lamb’s silver-tongued dirtbag brothers. Oh, and there’s also a groovy chase scene, along with a demented Jigsaw deathtrap that could be in the next gritty reboot sequel.
Murder Mystery Machine may be simple, but it’s definitely entertaining, and there’s nothing to overthink. Improv encourages everyone involved to let go and live in the moment. Even with familiar characters and settings, the audience gives up the comfort of what they know. The actors, holding up multi-generational pop characters, listen to each other, not just for their cues. It’s raunchy humor, but nobody punches down.
Water splatters along the walls and out at the audience during the blackouts, signifying death while also loosening up the audience for the laughs that lie ahead. One member of the gang is doomed, and Murder Mystery Machine’s crew elicits dread for them. No spoilers, but for better or worse, Scrappy-Doo didn’t show up on Saturday. Then again, who’s to say he doesn’t show up at the next show?
Murder Mystery Machine runs at the Funhouse Lounge at 7 pm Thursday-Saturday through November 6. Tickets start at $13.