Driving to Pennsylvania on a Friday afternoon in January, I have murder on my mind. Would I survive the weekend? No, if anyone was going to die, I surmised, it was going to be a regular. The Allenberry Resort Inn and Playhouse in Boiling Springs wouldn't leave such an important role in its murder mystery weekend to an amateur. Would it?
Truth is, I didn't know what to expect when I left Washington in the aftermath of the Bush inauguration, only to become immersed in other politics, this time a more local, fictional and lethal election. "The Ballot Box Murders" at the Allenberry is about an imaginary Boiling Springs mayoral election that dissolves into an awful lot of mayhem for such a tiny little town.
Guests Ralph Jones and Anita Miller of Hagerstown dress as Boris and Natasha -- of Rocky and Bullwinkle Fame -- at the Allenberry Resort Inn and Playhouse.
(Sean Simmers - For The Washington Post)
Not to worry, though. The weekend came with instructions. At check-in, I was handed a "Special Election Edition" of the Boiling Springs Observer, a pink campaign button and a sheet explaining how the weekend would unfold. "Some [players] make grand entrances," the page said. "Some make early and permanent exits."
The Allenberry is a sprawling, handsome property. Some of the rooms in the historic buildings had lovely features, including wooden four-poster beds with canopies and bookshelves loaded with old volumes. My room was more on the Comfort Inn level: basic, not particularly charming, but with such nice touches as two small bottles of wine and a heart-shaped box of chocolates on the bed one night.
It was at the Friday evening cocktail hour that things veered away from normal inn life. The action takes place at meals, and the acting doesn't stop until the players step out of character at Sunday brunch. In between, guests can do yoga or line dancing, walk the grounds or get massages.
Some of the actors in the murder mystery are local while others are dues-paying actors down from New York. One played opposite Jerry Orbach in "42nd Street" on Broadway and with Jerry Lewis in "Damn Yankees!" on tour and in London. Another danced with the Joffrey Ballet.
At a cocktail party Friday night, more than 100 guests met the three "candidates": Simpson Main, the incumbent mayor; Lester Gunter, the chief of the BSPD (the real town doesn't have a police department); and Tulliver Applecart, a former "Transportation Steering Specialist" (truck driver) and lottery winner.
Applecart, slinging back a beer on his way to the podium, summarized his platform this way: "If I'm smart enough to win the lottery, I'm smart enough to be mayor."
And then, before the waiters could even clear the hors d'oeuvres, we had our dead man. Several thugs in black coats and sunglasses burst in through the glass door and plugged empty-headed Applecart -- using very loud blanks. Some guests were recruited by the police to help guard the doors. "This is certainly an exciting place," says Ralph Jones, a guest from Hagerstown who's been coming for eight years.
Hmm. Exciting wasn't my first reaction. Overacted, maybe. Corny, possibly. Certainly this was no refined country-house mystery on the order of Agatha Christie. We had our body, room and weapon -- Mr. Applecart in the dining room with the revolver -- all before the salad. All that was left of this whodunit was, well, who done it.