Streetside: Surviving the Mystery Train's murder-mystery dinner theater 

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There were six tables, four chairs at each. We were seated next to two women: A 50-ish Army colonel from Leavenworth, and her mother, who lives in Butler, Missouri. I made chitchat and took stock of the surroundings. There were a few couples who looked to be in their late 30s, and a woman in her late 20s with her mother, but otherwise the median age of the guests was probably around 65. There were also three people in costume — the show was set on a train car during the Depression — circulating around the room, talking to the tables while in character: a blustering, heavyset guy by the name of Ed Barnes; a prim-and-proper middle-aged woman named Connie Parker; and a younger airhead type named Barbara Shepard.

Barbara stopped by our table, said something about the Dust Bowl, and asked us where we were heading. What? Oh, you mean on this fake train ride? I took a long sip from my 16-ounce aluminum Budweiser bottle and looked across the table at Ashford. It was beginning to dawn on him that this dinner was more than he had bargained for. He mumbled something about going to Indianapolis. Barbara said she'd never heard of Indianapolis. "Barbara is a foolish woman, mentally incapable of carrying out a murder," I wrote on the small packet of materials we'd been given on the way in.

Right before the performance began, the actors wrangled people from some of the tables and took them behind the partition. They returned with new name tags, costume props and a script of the play. The Army colonel, for example, returned with a '30s-style hat, purse and necklace; her new name was Mama Miller, and she was a folk singer. So, in addition to the three actors, four guests would also have speaking parts in Baldknobbers and Backstabbers.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but before the steak is served, there is a murder. The dialogue is full of humorous misunderstandings, wordplay and colorful language — "That's loopier than a cross-eyed cowboy's lasso," etc. There are clues, and you can bribe the actors with fake money to get information out of them. For reasons that were never entirely clear to me, we were given crossword puzzles and word searches whose answers were words like "moonshine" and "depression."

My favorite part was when the guest actors had to read their lines, like the bald man in his 60s whose performance was so square and devoid of emotion that I wondered whether it was some kind of genius parody of bad acting. It was like watching Hank Hill from King of the Hill try to act. He was wearing a turquoise polo shirt but had been given a bow tie as part of his character's wardrobe. I looked over once and half of the bow tie was hanging off his collar.

After dessert, we all filled out a form and guessed who the killer was, how he or she did it, and why. Ashford guessed correctly and was awarded a large magnifying glass and the title of Grand Master Gumshoe. I congratulated him and then informed him that technically the magnifying glass belonged to me because I had brought him to the event.

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