It’s Election Night, 1929, and Fiorello H. LaGuardia (“The Little Flower”) is thundering against his opponent, the incumbent mayor, Jimmy (“Beau James”) Walker, at their final mayoral debate, accusing him of corruption and cronyism and all manner of graft.
There are several things that don’t gel with the historical record in this first big scene of “Tammany Hall,” an inspired site-specific, immersive new play about a colorful moment in New York City politics, which is opening on Election Night, 2021. It’s unlikely that a formal debate between the two candidates was held on the very night people were voting; who has ever done that? And it seems guaranteed that LaGuardia and Walker never debated inside a boxing ring, which is what they do in this play; Walker probably didn’t literally wrap himself in the American flag while in the ring either.
But two elements are rock solid. LaGuardia’s accusations were real, and eventually proven. And the cast is performing in a building where the real-life characters they’re portraying surely hung out. Since 1990, the building at 15 Vandam Street has housed the SoHo Playhouse, but Playhouse artistic director Darren Lee Cole knew of its history as the Huron Club, which was until the 1940s the club headquarters in Greenwich Village for the Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. That inspired Cole and co-creator Anthony Wright to go to town, thinking up scenes not just for the current theater, and the downstairs lounge (posing as a Speakeasy) but areas that theatergoers have never seen before — backstage, the roof, a loft, an office, a closet, a makeshift dressing room, a rickety staircase… fifteen separate spaces in all, serving as playing areas for some dozen characters, all dressed in exquisite Roaring Twenties attire: the candidates, Tammany cronies, Walker’s mistress Betty, Betty’s chorus girl friends, a government investigator incognito, characters with names like Kiki, Smarty and Ritzi.
How, you might ask, could all these scenes play out with a running time of only 90 minutes?
The whole audience is gathered together for only three of the scenes:
1. The debate between the Republican LaGuardia (Christopher Romero Wilson) and Tammany-backed Walker (Martin Dockery) with the boxing ring set in the middle of the well-appointed room called the loft, complete with a working bar (so the audience, as well as the characters, get to violate Prohibition), and walls covered with blackboards used in illegal gambling.
2. A preview performance of “Violet,” the Broadway musical (set to open the following day) that stars Walker’s mistress Betty Compton (Marie Anello), held in the SoHo Playhouse theater itself, and featuring several members of the audience, who have been draped with feather boas, and enlisted for the chorus line, hilariously.
3. The climactic scene in the downstairs Speakeasy (which serves drinks too), where all in attendance learn the election results – and the government investigator unmasks himself and confronts the ne’er-do-wells.
What other scenes an audience member sees depends on what group you happen to fall in with.
After the debate, George Washington Olvany (Isaac J. Connor) brought a group of us into the boss’s office, which is lined with portraits of Tammany politicians over the previous two centuries. He asked one of us what he does for a living. Then he told us what he does: “I’m a New York Court Judge, the deputy New York City Fire Commissioner, and I run Tammany Hall.”
As he sat grandly at his desk, he schemed to get our vote (we each had been given a ballot as we entered the building.) “Let me tell you how the voting works,” he explained. “You get a voting slip. You vote for Walker. Easy.”
He unfolded a map of Manhattan, and tried to make deals with each of us. What’s important to you? Health care? How about I name this clinic after you? Here’s the contract for you to sign.
Suddenly, Betty herself appeared, and after some back and forth, led us down the rickety staircase to a makeshift dressing room, where she was first greeted, then confronted, by her friend and fellow chorine Kiki (Chloe Kekovic.) Kiki was the one to reveal to us that Betty is Walker’s mistress, and Jimmy Walker a crook:
Kiki: Betty, you’re stratospheric. You know that. To hell with the dubious guys in the overpriced suits smoking in the back of the stalls waiting til you’ve cleaned their money
Betty: Shut up
Kiki: Oh come on, it’s no secret.
Betty: We have company
Kiki: Alright company, listen up and learn a little. Betty is the best thing to have come outta the Ziegfeld Follies, period. Jimmy, Betty’s boyfriend –
Betty: You can’t say that in public
Kiki: We’re not in public
Betty’s boyfriend, the Mayor of New York City, is using Betty to wash cash, to launder money.
Betty: Be quiet, Kiki
Kiki: To produce a show to shuffle thousands of dollars through
Betty: That’s enough
Kiki: So his friends in the city can get their dirty hands on clean money.
After their confrontation, we were led down the backstage staircase to the theater to watch the musical numbers from “Violet.”
These scenes that just a handful of us witnessed were clever, engaging, well-researched (there was a George Washington Olvany with all those jobs at once; and Betty Compton was mistress to the married Mayor Walker, who did have dubious friends.) The scenes were obviously scripted, but acted well enough (and with improvised audience interaction) so that they felt spontaneous. But what of all the scenes I didn’t get to see? That’s the tradeoff in this kind of immersive theater. In exchange for a feeling of spontaneity, serendipity and intimacy, each individual theatergoer loses out on most of the scenes, and is likely to feel in the dark about some of the characters and aspects of the story.
It didn’t have to be done this way. The creative team could have devised, say, a total of four of these smaller scenes and repeated each of them throughout the evening for separate groups of audience members until everybody had seen everything. (It would have been less work for the creative team this way, too.) Perhaps creating this much larger show that nobody is able to see in its entirety is a marketing strategy to encourage us to return to “Tammany Hall” in hopes of catching some of the scenes we missed.
Even the limited glimpse of “Tammany Hall” is something of a treat for New Yorkers with an interest in history. Christopher Romero Wilson and Martin Dockery may give us just a taste of the endlessly colorful characters they portray. But they certainly look like them. And a taste may be enough for the likes of James J. Walker, who, among his other talents and attractions, wrote the lyrics to such (still) popular Tin Pan Alley songs as “Will You Love Me in December as you do in May?” — which Dockery at one point sings. That was during the same campaign speech when he made me laugh – in agreement?—when he proclaimed:
“I am in love with this town. In all it’s beauty. In all its ugliness. I would rather be a lamppost in New York than Mayor of Chicago.”
Created and directed by Darren Lee Cole and Anthony Wright
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets are $89.
Scenic design by Dan Daly, costume design by Grace Jeon, lighting design by Emily Clarkson, sound design by Megan Culley
Cast: Marie Anello as Betty Compton, Natasa Babic as Valentine, Andrew Broaddus as Battery Dan. Jesse Castellano as Kresel, Isaac J. Connor as Olvany, Martin Dockery as Beau James Walker, Shahzeb Hussain as Curry, Chloe Kekovic as Kiki, Nathaniel Ryan as Legs Diamond, Sami Petrucci as Smarty, Christopher Romero Wilson as Fiorello LaGuardia, and Charly Wenzel as Ritzi.