Polter-Heist at Coral Springs Center for the Arts

Interactive dinner theater, as we know it, is something of a Catskillian tradition — tacky, disposable, with a low standard of quality and a lower audience denominator. The takeaway from the Coral Springs Center for the Arts' Polter-Heist production — the first in its 2013-14 Sherlock's Dinner Theatre season — is that it's not calamitous. It's not disastrous. For the most part, it moves with a refreshing zip and zeal, with humor as topical as it is timeless.

Critics judging the show as they would the latest effort from Palm Beach Dramaworks will walk out of theater with far too many nits to pick; for one, the show loses steam halfway through, slowing to a crawl before regaining speed at the end. But the show more than makes up for its flaws with copious charm and surprisingly exuberant performances.

The setting is the dining room of the Mouldering Pines Inn — AKA a small-function room on the second floor of the Coral Springs Center — where the audience has arrived as part of a convention of the Boogeyman Outreach Organization, or BOO. The inn's proprietors, Phyllis and Jim Lodge (Ellen Katz Murray and David Victor), have intended to stage a ghostly visitation to milk money from the conferees and hoodwink the event's wacky host, a psychic medium of indeterminate European origin (Joann Bromley). But when a legitimate apparition shows up, the room is thrown into turmoil, with various parties competing to capture it, from a shady professor of paranormal studies (Jerel Brown) to Smolder and Scullery (Juan Gamero and Sandi M. Stock), undercover FBI agents who resemble certain iconic TV detectives.

The show has a freewheeling, shambolic quality, and it feels at times like it's being written on the spot. For all I know, that may be the case: Polter-Heist has no credited writer, so it's possible these skeletal scenarios emerged from rehearsals. At any rate, sitcommy line readings share time with audience interactions and obvious actor improvs, the latter succeeding more than the former. Sandi Stock, fresh off The Beebo Brinker Chronicles in Fort Lauderdale, is considerably better here, proving she's a gifted improviser. At one point, her desperate Scullery exclaims, "The government's shut down, people; we're doing this on our own!"

Occasionally, you'll get the sort of performance bound for bigger things. Katz Murray brings a bit of Judy Davis cynicism to the salty-tongued, quick-witted Phyllis Lodge, and she acts circles around the stiff Victor. Brown, another local with professional credits, plays his "professor" like a cartoon villain, but he has fun with it, excelling in the show's only musical number. As the loony medium, Bromley has the show's hammiest part, and she could use another day or two of line rehearsals, but her tone and energy are spot-on throughout.

Dinner arrives at intermission, courtesy of Doris' Italian Market; it's chicken 'n' rice, with green beans and almonds on the side and vanilla cake for dessert. Like the show itself, it's best to approach the nosh without expectations and you'll leave sated. Oh, and there's a two-drink minimum, thank goodness: Spiritual communication sounds a lot more plausible with a couple of "Sherlock's Premium Margaritas" illuminating your aura.

 
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