Speakeasy Dollhouse, an immersive theatre piece by Cynthia von Buhler, is like being in a murder mystery party. Set in a giant speakeasy in the Lower East Side, you are encouraged to “be nosy and talk to strangers” as a tale of Prohibition-era murder, infidelity and bootlegging unfolds literally all around you.
Inspired by von Buhler’s real life family tree, Speakeasy Dollhouse traces the story of her grandfather, bootlegger Frank Spano, who, we are informed, owns the speakeasy we are being entertained in. The nefarious gentleman in the grey suit with the tough-looking body guard is none other than Dutch Schultz, who is quick to tell anyone and everyone about his dislike for Spano. Below the speakeasy, just off the alley, is a bakery and barbershop, the latter owned by John Guerrieri and his wife Lucrezia. The band of characters also includes Mary and Dominic Spano, Frank’s pregnant wife and son, the accordion-playing Irishman Jimmy Hines (who appears to be the only person who likes Dutch Schultz), an undertaker, a medical examiner, several burlesque dancers and a couple of cops. A four piece band sets the jazz age tone of the piece as the dancers and cash bar further establish the speakeasy feel.
For three hours, you are encouraged to talk with the cast of 16+ characters (not including the dancers and musicians) as you try to figure out the intrigue behind Spano’s demise (pay attention and you will witness it!). The difficulty with the production is that, although we are encouraged to pry and press characters for information, you can rarely get more than “Dutch is a bad guy” out of them. While the program you are given is filled with information and newspaper about this real-life crime, little of that fascinating detail makes its way into the production. I was greatly excited when I was asked to deliver a secret note to Jimmy Hines, yet disappointed when all it said was “you’re a mean guy”. The beauty of a Hitchcock film, or a well-made murder mystery kit, is that there is so much information – perhaps even too much information - much of which is only tangentially related to the crux of the mystery, so that you are in a constant state of overload and suspense. Speakeasy Dollhouse deals in only simple, broad strokes. While it is an extremely fun environment, I wish we were challenged more and that there was more of an incentive for speaking to characters.
Rachel Boyadjis gives a standout performance as young Dominic Spano. Boyadjis charismatically and energetically monologues and improvises conversation and is sufficiently convincing as a 12-year-old boy. Dogan Perese, as undertaker Dominick Grimaldi, looks and sounds like he’s straight out of a gangster film and Jeff Wengrofsky is a suitably intense and semi-socially awkward medical examiner. Overall, however, the performances are exceedingly artificial and unconvincing, again reminiscent of a murder mystery party.
Speakeasy Dollhouse is a fun and amusing experience. As a crime story it may not be the most complicated, but as an excuse to dress up, sip illicit cocktails in coffee cups and explore a beautiful Prohibition-era space (complete with revolving bookcase) it certainly delivers.