Daily Pilot by Tom Titus

Sleuths Are on the Case at The Gourmet Detective

If you grew up reading the murder mysteries featuring Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, you'll find the current attraction at Irvine's The Gourmet Detective particularly appetizing.

"Nancy Hardy and the Riddle of the Sphinx" (also titled, "Your Dinner or Your Life") is the latest laugh-packed whodunnit from the fiendishly creative folks who brought you "Murder at the Cafe Noir," "Abracadavar" and "Death Under Cover." The show has just settled in for an indefinite run showing every weekend.

Locally created - authors Alyssa Canann and Tom Shelton reside in Costa Mesa and Laguna Beach, respectively- this show contains all the vital elements that have distinguished The Gourmet Detective in its first eight years.

First of all, it's the antithesis of Agatha Christie. No proper stiff-upper-lipping here. Director Bob May (who enacts three characters in the show) has encouraged his cast to serve up the ham, no matter what else is on the menu. The result is broad, outlandish comedy reminiscent of the earlier, better days of "Saturday Night Live" or the old "Carol Burnett Show."

Secondly, the audience becomes involved, though not so much in this show as in past productions. The actors are skilled in the art of improvisation and, at Saturday night's performance, even brought a fellow critic onstage to sing a jingle he'd written (the playgoers ostensibly are finalists in a soap company jingle contest).

May puts on a seminar in wackiness as he enacts the crazed Nazi captain of a cruise ship up the Nile (circa 1938), a Marty Feldmanesque busboy who's really theexiled king of Chad and a Scotland Yard investigator with dossiers on all concerned.

The sleuthing young Nancy is winningly portrayed by Tracy Purdue with all the sweet spunkiness she can muster. Her doting father, with a past that catches up to him on the trip, is solidly done by Michael McKay.

A pair of consummate pros in the interactive theatre genre are Mignonne Profant as a seductive songstress and Lori Schneide as a sourpuss spinster. These two manage to steal whatever part of the show May hasn't already absconded with.

Profant enhances the evening's enjoyment with her femme fatale mannerisms and her torchy songs from atop the piano (played by Kevin Weed), while Schneide (who must have grown up watching Ruth Buzzi on "Laugh-In") is an absolute kick in her California debut (her character name, by the way, is the pseudonym used by the author of the Nancy Drew books).

Daniel Emmett as the gin-soaked wastrel playboy pulls out all the cliches to this familiar character but manages to remain sympathetic. Likewise, Tom Royer wrestles with caricature as a shady, mob-connected passenger and comes out the victor in this and two other assignments. Hardy Boys fans will recognize the first name of his last character, Fenton, as Frank and Joe Hardy's Dad. The show is well-paced, and the actors maintain character well as they break to serve the three course dinner. And, unlike past Gourmet Detective shows, you'll probably guess the murderer well in advance of the final curtain, which for serious armchair sleuths, may be the production's only weakness.