Crime scenes

The cloak-and-dagger interactive theater game Accomplice: New York makes the city its stage

On Friday afternoon, the phone rings. "You know that thing that you're supposed to do tomorrow that you don't know nothin' about?" the mystery caller asks, with the evasive bluntness of a seasoned thug. "That's why I'm calling. Now pay attention, because I only got a second."

So begins Accomplice: New York, an ingenious new game—equal parts interactive theater, puzzle challenge and walking tour—that draws participants into a web of intrigue spun across lower Manhattan. The Friday phone call provides instructions on where to meet; every half hour from noon to 5pm on Saturday, groups of four to six players convene at the specified location. There they are greeted by Louie, a wise guy in a black suit, who sends them on a mission: to be middlemen in an organized-crime scheme that will take them by foot to eclectic downtown destinations. At every station of the trip, they encounter new shady characters (played by seven improv-trained actors), who pass along clues to decipher.

"It's a great deal of fun," says Tony-winning producer Jeffrey Richards (Glengarry Glen Ross), who took part last month. "It's sort of like being on a treasure hunt or scavenger hunt at camp." The brainchild of siblings Tom and Betsy Salamon, who have been developing it since last year, Accomplice acquires a more grown-up coherence due to its noirish underworld theme. "We never wanted people to feel like they were just going around doing random tasks," Tom says. "So it became important to us to develop a story around it." Betsy's experience as a psychotherapist also played into the decision. "I talk to people all the time who are bored and stressed out," she explains. "I think that fits in with my desire to create an escape—a way to live another existence for a couple of hours."

Would-be accomplices sign up at www.accomplicenewyork.com, then wait to be contacted by return e-mail. Tickets are $35 apiece—a bargain for an activity that takes two and a half hours from start to finish, and includes beer, wine and light refreshments. As the groups wind their way through the game, the Salamons keep running tabs on their whereabouts and monitor their progress in solving the clues. "We try to walk a fine line between making it challenging, yet not impossible," Tom says. "We love it when people get a little lost, but not too lost. Somebody ended up in an apartment in Chinatown once."

The cast of performers is backed up by local merchants who have agreed to play along. "It breaks up their day a little bit," Tom says. "Milton the bartender [at one of the stations] completely looks forward to getting to be a bit of an actor on Saturdays." Participants are encouraged to improvise scenes with the characters they meet along the way, ensuring that every group's adventure is unique.

Our guys have to be really sharp and react to whatever people throw at them and whatever's happening around them," Tom says of his cast. "Just last week, one of our guys was approached in the middle of a scene by someone whose truck needed a push. So the entire group helped push this guy's truck across Mulberry Street." (Betsy adds: "At the end, the group didn't believe us that it wasn't part of the show.")

The kaleidoscopic flux of lower Manhattan, inevitably, ends up being one of Accomplice's key partners in crime. "Every week there's some kind of gathering down there that makes for a better scene," Tom notes. "Hopefully, by the end of the day, it seems like everybody that you come into contact with—whether they're with us or not—is an extra in your little story."