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'Accomplice' goes Hollywood

April 26, 2009 | 11:30 am

Neil-Patrick-Harris-and-Tom As he recalls it, Neil Patrick Harris had a very happy 30th birthday.

It began with a home invasion.

“Men in black masks tied me up and threw me in the trunk of a car, then left me blindfolded in the middle of nowhere with a box of keys and a clue,” Harris, now 35, says affectionately. This was no celebrity kidnapping, after all: It was the handiwork of Harris’ friends, who knew about his fondness for interactive games.

“I love games and puzzles, through I’m terrible at solving them,” he says. “On that birthday scavenger hunt, I screwed up probably 80% of the time and had to call for help. But I was so excited to be doing it.”

When he’s not appearing as lovable womanizer Barney Stinson on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” or taking the occasional film or stage role, Harris is seeking out such sui generis live events — in Vegas, in London, at Knott’s Scary Farm, wherever.

A few years ago in New York City, Harris and some friends happened upon a doozy: a three-hour tour/-theater experience called “Accomplice,” in which teams follow an unraveling mystery narrative through real locations in Lower Manhattan, guided by actors playing parts and whatever clues they can gather and decipher. 

“We found ourselves walking through a part of town holding something unique, just cackling with delight — not that we were solving it, but that we were just doing it,” Harris recalled. “We were just giddy with the fact that someone had spent the time to create this experience for us.”

That someone turned out to be Tom Salamon, a former film editor who, with his sister  Betsy Sufott, started “Accomplice” four years ago this spring. Salamon and Sufott run two interactive shows in New York (“Accomplice: The Village” opened in 2007, joining “Accomplice: New York,”), and now, with Harris’ financial and creative backing, the franchise is expanding to a West Coast berth: “Accomplice: Hollywood” opens to the public Saturday.

Salamon initially got the idea from a far less inspiring tour of Manhattan environs.

“We were at the mercy of a tour guide we found boring and long-winded, but we were seeing all these cool places,” recalled Salamon, 38, a dry-witted New Yorker adapting to L.A. life. “We were fans of ‘Survivor’ and ‘Big Brother,’ so we thought it would be fun to see all this stuff in a different context.”
A different context indeed: Each “Accomplice” show is stage-managed remotely via cellphone as successive teams walk from site to site. Though the time each mini-audience spends at each locale inevitably varies, the shows have become routine enough that the producers now run eight successive shows a day at half-hour intervals, striving mightily to keep teams from crossing paths and shattering the illusion.

Finding similar sites — not to mention a route easily navigable on foot — proved a challenge in sprawling Los Angeles.

“It’s hard to find a place in L.A. that you can walk around,” Harris noted. “You really can’t get in cars for this experience, because they just take the timetable to a whole other world.”

Salamon and Harris looked for pedestrian-friendly settings on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, in Old Town Pasadena and even Universal CityWalk. They finally settled on Hollywood for a variety of reasons.

For one, there’s the tourist factor: Salamon estimates that the percentage of locals to tourists attending the New York shows is roughly 25% to 75%, respectively. And though he’s skeptical of tourist attractions in his own New York backyard, Salamon admitted that Hollywood’s Walk of Fame was a place he felt he needed to see when he first came West a few years back.

As a local, Harris was more dismissive of the neighborhood (“I would never send my family or friends there unsolicited,” he said). But here, as in New York, the “Accomplice” show is designed to entice adventurous Angelenos as well as goggle-eyed tourists.

“The locations we’ve found are places that are really interesting to be in, that I’d never been to,”  Harris said. Hollywood’s mix of seedy glitz and nostalgia offers another attraction: a tone and even a frame for the narrative that unspools in “Accomplice: Hollywood.”

“There’s definitely a noir influence,” Salamon said. “We stay away from murder mystery, but it is a crime story — a Hollywood scandal.”

Salamon and Harris are coy about the details of the story and the itinerary; those who call for reservations are simply given a meeting place and time. The log line would read as follows: Fictional Hollywood starlet Nikki Desmond (“a Lohan type,” Harris said) has disappeared from the set of her comeback film.

“That’s all you know coming in,” Salamon said. “Then the audience plays a part in sort of discovering this scandal, and gets dropped into the middle of all of the people that are in the business of Nikki Desmond — assistants, publicists, agents, producers and screenwriters.”

As in New York, audiences are essentially treated to a series of “acts” at various bars, coffee houses and other places of business, even seemingly random street corners. Actors, typically culled from the worlds of stand-up comedy and improv, are on hand to dole out allotted clues and handle questions (and occasional interruptions from non-patrons).

It’s a delicate and unpredictable balancing act, but the unknowns are precisely what makes or breaks “Accomplice.”

Though there’s no actual violence in the shows, characters placed in states of jeopardy have incited some extreme audience response.

“There have been a couple of 911 calls,” Salamon admitted. “But we always try to stop it before it gets to that, while always maintaining the illusion — an actor may have to say, ‘My father’s a doctor, he’s gonna deal with it, don’t worry about it,’ and eventually they get it. I mean, you can’t blame someone for calling 911; it’s actually kind of sweet.”

Blurring the line between the real and the fantastic might come more naturally in L.A. “That is a great element of doing it in Hollywood — there are all sorts of people along your journey who might very well be in the show, or certainly seem eccentric enough to be,” Harris said.

For audiences attuned to clue-sniffing, sometimes it doesn’t even take eccentricity to catch their eye. Salamon recalled how one New York team got slightly derailed when they noticed some movers along their route.

“The audience asked them, ‘Do you know Dorothy?’ And they go, ‘Oh yeah, we know Dorothy, we see her around here.’ And the audience thinks, ‘These must be our guys’ — and they follow the movers up into an apartment on the fifth floor.”

You won’t find that in the guidebook.

--Rob Weinert-Kendt

"Accomplice," Hollywood (location disclosed after ticket purchase). Opens Saturday; shows every half hour, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $65 (includes drinks and snacks). (800) 979-3370 or www.accomplicetheshow.com

Caption: Neil Patrick Harris and Tom Salomon. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

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