Theater review: ‘Speakeasy Dollhouse’

Audience and cast members mingle in the secret bar once they give the correct password to enter "Speakeasy Dollhouse."

At a glance, this immersive experience seems to offer all of the best elements for die-hard interactive theater lovers or fans of murder mystery dinners. The website (www.speakeasy.com) is gorgeous and contains tons of information for you to absorb before you go, including historically accurate details about the crime with exhaustive clues. The scenes have also been storyboarded with photographs of dolls in elaborate backdrops. All of this work seems to indicate a huge payout for when you get to the play but actually sets up attendance itself as a letdown. Countess Cynthia von Buhler, the author and orchestrator who based the premise off her own family’s history with bootlegging and the mafia, credits “Sleep No More” as part of her inspiration.

The extremely ambitious project has many moving parts and may at first seem overwhelming. But once you arrive at a “secret location” in SoHo and say the correct password to the broad behind the peephole, the actual experience is a bit of a bust. If you studied all of the evidence and read the book, then there’s not much new to be learned. If you didn’t, it’s hard to keep up. We did like the atmosphere a “Boardwalk Empire” ambiance with most of the crowd (not just the cast) donning era-appropriate ensembles and speaking in an affected tone. We’d enjoy having a drink there again, but we wouldn’t pay a cover to do so.

Tickets are $20-$300 for entrance, a copy of the book that correlates with the evening (there are five total) and/or an evidence kit. Drinks are, on average, $10 apiece and served in small teacups with generous ice. When your main activity for hours on end is to sit around and chat at a bar, it can get pricey fast. Imagine “Sleep No More” taking place entirely in the lounge at the McKittrick, with characters milling about and chatting conversationally about how they want to kill one another. And that’s “Speakeasy.”

Aside from the ongoing discourse, there are a few short scenes that occur about two hours after the guests arrive. Until then, there’s very little to do but look at the pretty costumes and try to eavesdrop on actors in the lounge, a morgue, a bedroom or a bakery. A highlight of the evening was when one man gave us a note to pass to another about fulfilling his end of the bargain. We pushed through the crowds awhile, balancing our teacups and trying to find the correct actor, but quickly found this more frustrating than rewarding and sat back down again, hoping the right guy would come to us. If not, well, we tried but it was a lackluster, lone attempt to include us in the story after we’d looked around, chatted with various participants and ordered several watery drinks. It makes sense that the cast is largely self-involved and the plot persistently chooses to look inward; Countess Buhler (this is a name she chooses to go by, not a consigned title) wrote it for her own edification, and seems to forget that a theatrical show’s purpose is, of course, to entertain others.

The show was originally slated to run one chapter per month on Mondays through June, but has since extended to run on a few select Saturdays as well. Visit the website for exact dates and further information.


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