Vintage immersive experience
by Richard Dodds
You can't see it all, but you should at least drain the main vein. Program notes for The Speakeasy include information that three vintage urinals at a cost of $1,300 apiece and nine high-tank toilets at $800 a pop had been installed to help maintain the verisimilitude of The Speakeasy experience. Had I known that, I would have at least paid nature an honorary call.
This revamped, expanded, and theatrically improved immersive experience has reopened at a secret location near where Chinatown and North Beach converge. The first Speakeasy opened in the Tenderloin in 2014 in an impressive recreation of a 1920s hooch hall with separate areas for a bar, nightclub, and casino. Comics and singers would take to the stages as small dramas would periodically flare up in the different areas and audiences moved through often-cramped passages.
It was doing big business when it lost its lease, but rather than closing up shop, Boxcar Theatre's Nick A. Olivero and his colleagues upped the ante by raising $3 million to build out a sprawling new space beneath some rundown faux business fronts. This 9,000-square-foot maze of period details needs a cast and crew of 81 to set it into motion at every performance. The new Speakeasy is an astonishingly complex operation that couldnŐt possibly work – except that it runs with an efficiency without calling attention to the critical managerial efficiency that operates with only glimpses of discouraged totems of contemporary technology.
In an alley behind City Lights Bookstore, where I had been instructed to report to a man in a blue hat, he explained the list of rules and instructions – including sealing of cellphones in heavy foil-lined envelopes – but he was occasionally interrupted by questions coming into his earpiece and his Secret Service-style replies into his sleeve. A hand-drawn map directed us to the venue itself, which has several entrances that you hardly notice even when looking for them. In our case, it was into an old Chinese laundry where you then descend a dark staircase into a bustling nightclub. If instead you had been sent to a clock shop, that staircase would take you down to the rowdy main bar. After everyone has been herded into a pre-assigned locale, the audience can then go free range. And that's where the fun really begins.
You are welcome to move about the main spaces, and several that you may or may not discover on your rambles. If a door is not marked private, no matter how small or discreet, you are free to plunge ahead. In one case, in a replica of an office with a picture window into which voyeurs could peer, a performer and a thuggish producer were having a go at it. Enter another door, and you are peering into a dressing room where the star chanteuse is being inveigled into trying a suspicious drug for her vocal problems. No one else can possibly be having the same experiences.
After wandering through the nightclub, the bar, the casino, a vestibule, and other portals, you may decide to concentrate on certain characters. That's what we did, starting with the charismatic Megan Wicks, playing the troubled star singer Velma, as we followed her from room to room to see how her story developed. And the strongly committed work from Robert Molossi as the sexually conflicted Eugene was another lure, as we see him playing ladies' man in the cabaret and unsuccessfully trying to pick up another man after wandering into the bar. And in one of the ethereal moments that only a handful will experience, Eugene pulled my companion into a private room for a sharing of special moments.
But as uniquely enveloping as all this is, there can be significant languor during the three-hour-plus production. Not all of the periodically erupting dramas in the various spaces are worth much investment. While focus has been sharpened from the previous Speakeasy, it can still be hard to decipher what is going on as bits and pieces of scripted drama periodically erupt. By chance, I was sitting at a table next to actors playing arguing spouses, and the wife was barely audible even at this close proximity.
But in this casual combination of performers and audiences who often come outfitted in period outfits, you're never quite sure if you're mingling with cast or customers. This heightens the impact, and helps maintain the reality, when someone standing beside you begins singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" then others around the room begin joining in. It's a plausible spontaneity that suits the show and that the heavy-handed production numbers seen in the earlier incarnation had lacked. At least, I didn't see a repeat of those, which doesn't mean they weren't happening somewhere else in the warren.
Not only can you not see it all, you also have no idea what anyone outside your sightlines is experiencing. The scripted material marches ahead whether it's three or three dozen who have happened into its vicinity. A flickering of the lights means some sort of scene is about to play out, but in the nightclub, the entertainment is nonstop. A four-piece band works its way through dozens of period songs as the chorus line seems to be changing costumes every few minutes. When the singers and dancers take a break, comics take center stage. The material is unabashedly threadbare, and they perform it with an eerie flatness that doesn't vary despite the silence that greets most punchlines.
Even with the freedom to move from room to room, lubricate with specialty cocktails, and make-believe gamble in the casino, you may feel finished with the three-hour production before it's finished by a raid by the feds. But the experience has a way of glowing with increasing brightness after the fact as the marvel of this implausible enterprise can be pondered and appreciated. But don't make the mistake that I made by going to see a man about a horse before arriving. Nothing like pointing Percy at vintage porcelain to start an evening at The Speakeasy.
The Speakeasy is currently taking reservations through Feb. 26. Tickets are $85-$130. Go to thespeakeasysf.com.