By Ron Fassler . . .
Off-Broadway’s SoHo Playhouse, in lower Manhattan, is housed on the site of a colonial mansion where General George Washington once set up headquarters. Later the home of Aaron Burr, it was sold to fur magnate John Jacob Astor in 1817 upon which it was converted into federalist-style row houses. One such dwelling was designated The Huron Club, which became a popular meeting house and night club for the Democratic Party, which in those days meant Tammany Hall, the powerful (and corrupt) political organization that ran New York City with an iron fist for nearly two centuries. A stage was built in the 1920s to present plays and musicals with a comfortable bar in its basement that was transformed into a private speakeasy in 1933 when Prohibition began. The club also served as Ground Zero for such nefarious doings as the 1919 conspiracy to fix baseball’s World Series and the Teapot Dome Scandal, which had tentacles that reached all the way to prominent cabinet members in Warren Harding’s White House, including the President himself.
Tammany Hall is a new play co-created by Darren Lee Cole, artistic director of SoHo Playhouse, and Alexander Wright, creator of The Great Gatsby, the U.K.’s longest running immersive show. Both history lesson and immersive experience, Tammany Hall offers audiences opportunities to visit and explore as many as 15 different rooms throughout the Huron Club from the top of the roof, where an extended sequence is played, all the way to the basement for the show’s dramatic conclusion. Classic 1920s types such as Mayors James (Gentleman Jimmy) Walker and Fiorello (the Little Flower) La Guardia, the gangster Legs Diamond, and songstress Betty Compton (the mistress of Mayor Walker) all play leading roles. In addition, Franklin Roosevelt and Arnold Rothstein play prominent offstage roles, creating a mélange of colorful New York characters transforming the proceedings back to 1929 (Election Day, to be exact), offering a smattering of fiction to intermingle with facts. To that end, it’s a lot more fanciful (and entertaining) than a Wikipedia entry.
Instead of entering the theatre through its lobby, my companion and I were led inside through a side door and up some back stairs, joining the rest of the small audience in an upstairs living room, transformed into a boxing ring by scenic designer Dan Daly. The proceedings began with Boss Olvany (Andrew Broaddus) using an overhead mic—de rigueur at a boxing match—to announce the play’s antagonists: James Walker, the defending champion running for re-election as Mayor, and the challenger Fiorello La Guardia, a feisty former Congressman, hell-bent on destroying Walker and his Tammany cronies. During an open debate on the politics of the day, a woman (dressed as a man in a three-piece suit and cap), who identified herself as Valentine (Natasa Babic), took my companion off into a side room and announced that she had chosen us to help her sniff out corruption within this Tammany Hall-sanctioned space. With her as our guide, we spent the rest of the play in her company, witnesses to private scenes throughout the four floors of the building. Along the way, we also spent some serious time with La Guardia (Christopher Romero Wilson), Legs Diamond (Nathaniel J. Ryan) and the charismatic Mayor Walker himself (Martin Dockery).
After the play concluded and having taken a seat at the bar of the speakeasy (yes, I imbibed), I asked individuals connected with the show just how many iterations could be accomplished by following all the diverse characters throughout the play’s ninety-minute running time. The answer was that there are seven hours’ worth of written material that can be generated if the play were to run end-to-end.
So, if you choose to take this ride you might get the chance, as I did, to be relegated to hiding in a secret room by way of walking through a phony bookcase, where I viewed a scene in the adjacent room through a peephole. Got to admit it was fun.
There’s improvisation (naturally) with some set dialogue scenes quite well-written and performed while you are standing inches from an actor’s face (they’re unmasked, but audience members are). An interrogation between Valentine (who turns out to be a cop) and Smarty (Sami Petrucci), the pianist for the stage show, was ripe with flirtation and inuendo. Again, fun. And here, credit to Natasa Babic, not only for her gender-bending, quirky performance, but for her thorough commitment to the piece.
Due to my trajectory, there were actors I didn’t get much of a chance to see at work. But of the ones I interacted with, utmost professionalism and good spirits ruled the day. If you have never experienced this type of performance art, a trip through the time machine at Tammany Hall makes for an enjoyable history lesson and high-spirited adventure that should prove just the right ticket.
Tammany Hall is at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, NYC now through January 9th. https://www.sohoplayhouse.com/tammany-hall
Photos: Maria Baranova (except as noted)