You are in downtown NYC. You walk up to a man on a poorly lit street standing in front of a short metal gate. You whisper “cannolis” into his ear and are led down a staircase into an alleyway filled with flickering lights. You knock on the big metal door at the top of the stairs and repeat the password through a peephole. The door swings open and you’re thrust into 1920s Prohibition Era Bronx.
Speakeasy Dollhouse is a piece of immersive theater created by Cynthia Von Buhler. Cynthia tried to unravel the mystery behind her grandfather’s death by creating scale model environments and figures representing everyone she knew was involved in the story. The results were collected in a book of the same name. She decided to turn the story into an interactive theatrical piece where guests would be invited to commingle with actors portraying her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the assorted Bronx locals she believed played a role in the murder.
As both a party and a piece of theater, Speakeasy Dollhouse is a success. If you’re familiar with Sleep No More, you already know how this limited engagement works. Ticket holders enter the interactive environment and are encouraged to explore the settings, talk with everyone to get information, and follow the various actors as the night unfolds. Some of the players make themselves known quite readily–Dominic, the oldest son of Mary and Frank Spano, is an uncontrollable bundle of energy trying to sneak drinks from guests and inviting you to the major settings of the story from the moment you enter. Others are more aloof, entering the show later in the night or hiding their involvement until just before their character is important to the story.
The fun of Speakeasy Dollhouse is trying to get information out of these actors. Everyone performing in the show knows when, exactly, things are going to unfold. If you ask the right series of questions or get them on the right topic, you’ll be handed an object that may be a key to a secret event. For example, while I was admiring the Spano’s bedroom filled with Catholic iconography–statues of Mary and the Pope, mass cards, crucifixes, bibles–I asked the very pregnant Mary Spano if she did the large embroidered prayer on the wall. She did not. She did, however, reach into her purse a few minutes into our conversation and hand me a set of rosary beads and asked me to pray for her soon to be born child. I obliged. In a strange way, I became a part of the story without changing the narrative of the story. I witnessed others having similar encounters with other players, such as a young woman walking around with a toe tag interrogating Frank Spano over the legality of his bakery’s special coffee.
The night runs from 7:00 to 11:30. There is an organic flow to the happenings. For the first hour (at least), everything is just a party. Dominic gives you directions to the bakery where “[his] Ma makes the best cannolis in the Bronx,” while servers in flapper dresses and suspenders take orders for the various “teas” the Spanos are offering for the night. A five piece band plays jazz standards intermixed with a gentleman or lady at an old turntable spinning grainy records from the time. You really don’t know who is or isn’t part of the story at this point as guest are encouraged to dress up for the occasion. I only began to notice the players when I saw a trio of people make a mad dash for the bootlegging closet, complaining about a spoiled batch of whiskey.
In true speakeasy fashion, nothing is served in a way that would set off the police. Cocktails are served in tea cups and coffee mugs, while bottles of beer are handed out in brown paper bags. To keep the deal with the cops, all alcohol must be consumed in the bakery or the Spano’s house/bar. Drinkers in the alley where the lone officer is on his beat will be accused of going Dutch and trying to shut the place down. Combined with the almost overwhelming attention to detail throughout the settings, Cynthia Von Buhler’s immersive piece succeeds in engaging the audience in a realistic Prohibition Era environment.
If there is a flaw to Speakeasy Dollhouse, it’s the ambition of the project. The actors do a phenomenal job selling the key points of the narrative. The show is spaced out in such a way that you might catch a string of connected events but could never see the entire thing in one go around.
Either by luck or by influence, you could wind up right in the middle of a scene, which makes it all the more thrilling. I was standing in one space trying to figure out why so many people were standing around me when an actor grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me into the crowd. My presence fueled a response from the audience that could not have happened if I–or someone else–had not been standing on an actor’s mark by chance.
The problem is the size of the space. When people hear a scene going on, they want to enter the room and watch. This means that a staircase could wind up packed three people wide on every step to see what’s going on. You could be stuck for five minutes or more in a place when you have a clue about a different event about to happen because there just isn’t enough room to navigate the floor when the events go off.
The space is a minor quibble. Most people did not seem to mind the mob forming around a scene. It built this great energy that seemed to ignite the actors in beautiful and unexpected ways. I could also tell from how the night went off that–if given a larger space to work with–Cynthia Von Buhler would have staged it in a way that created better pathways for guests to go through. She even stepped into the narrative at times to interact with the actors as a way to guide people away from a completed scene. “Go get a drink. Give the family some space. They’re not going anywhere for a long time. Try the cannolis. They need some time alone.”
She would also keep stock of what wasn’t being interacted with and encourage people to spread the word that–yes–you could touch that. Since Cynthia created the narrative inspired by her family history, it only makes sense that she–dressed as a flapper–would become involved in her family’s story as the night progressed. She transforms from host to guide to key player in the audience’s experience of her family’s story. It’s an interesting twist on the initial dollhouse conception of the piece that only adds to the fun of the evening.
Due to popular demand, you have one last chance to experience Speakeasy Dollhouse for yourself. Next Monday’s (24 October) performance is sold out, but an extra performance was added–when else?–on Halloween night. Tickets cost $15 and will be available on a first come first served basis at the door. If you are in the NYC area and do not have plans for my favorite night of the year, grab yourself a 1920s costume and follow the directions on their site. Just remember to bring cash with you. Drinks and pastries are not included with your ticket.
But seriously. Try the cannolis and ask for the special coffee. You won’t regret it.
Full Disclosure: I received a ticket to this show from Cynthia Von Buhler while interviewing her at NYCC. I did not pay for the ticket. However, as you can see from my Baby, It’s You review, I am not easily swayed by free anything.