20 • BAY AREA REPORTER • January 5-11, 2017
Vintage immersive experience by Richard Dodds
ou 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 couldn’t 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
Megan Wicks plays a troubled star in the cabaret at The Speakeasy, one of the numerous areas you are free to roam in this elaborate recreation of a 1920s bootleg palace.
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.t The Speakeasy is currently taking reservations through Feb. 26. Tickets are $85-$130. Go to thespeakeasysf.com.
Women he has known by Tavo Amador
ctor Robert J. Wagner (b. 1930) has had a longer career than almost anyone would have imagined when he made his uncredited film debut in 1950. He is still working. For decades, he was the quintessential leading man, appearing in countless films, enjoying considerable success on television, yet never taken seriously by critics. David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, for example, has no entry for him. Wagner may best be remembered for his two marriages to Natalie Wood (1938-91) and for being her widower. He has known and worked with many of the most celebrated women in motion picture history. He recalls them in I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses (Viking, $27). He was eight when he met his first movie star, Norma Shearer. Her son, Irving Thalberg, Jr., was a classmate, and brought him home to meet mother. Wagner got his break in 1952’s With a Song in My Heart, a biopic of singer Jane Froman starring Susan Hayward. He played an exceptionally handsome, shell-shocked soldier. His part was small, but Hayward made sure he got noticed. He writes appreciatively of her kindness, talent, and personality. Next year, he had star billing behind Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck in Titanic. His admiration for her led to an affair, even though she was 23 years older. They remained friends until her death. He also had a brief fling with Joan Crawford, 24 years his senior. His
assessment of her is nuanced and balanced. He worked with Bette Davis, whom he admired but admits could be very difficult, and offers a fresh insight into the differences between the two women. “Crawford wanted to be a star, and acting was the vehicle that got her there.” Davis, however, “wanted to be an actress,” and stardom brought her the roles she sought. Stanwyck, Crawford, and Davis aren’t the only stars of a generation before his whom he admires. Others include Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Ann Sheridan, Joan Blondell, Dorothy Lamour, and Claire Trevor. Lucille Ball was a neighbor in Palm Springs and was crazy about one his daughters. His discussion of them is free of hagiography – they were, after all, individuals with flaws. But for the most part, he writes with no meanness, and focuses on their best qualities. His discussion of how the gifted Betty Hutton’s nastiness caused her career to end after a decade is candid but sympathetic. She wound up broke and forgotten, living on Social Security in a small Palm Springs apartment. He’s excellent at assessing why critics often miss what audiences see. Lana Turner is a good example. Wagner is under no illusions about her acting skills, although he cites some good work she did, but he understands why she was a star for so long. He made films with Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren (whom he adored) and television movies with Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. He writes astutely about them
as actresses, friends (and, in the case of Taylor, romantic partner) and stars. But working with Raquel Welch was trying. Yet he’s gracious enough to say he was sufficiently impressed by her autobiography Beyond the Cleavage to give a copy to one of his daughters to read. Welch had, he says, clearly matured and changed. He understands the pressures of fame and the extra burden placed on women during and immediately after the demise of the classic studio system. It was hard for them to remain stars as they aged. This became especially true, he writes, with the widespread use of color photography in movies. Previously, skilled cinematographers used black-andwhite lighting to hide Shearer’s inward-facing eye, the tenseness in Dunne’s chin that made it look dark, or the bump on one side of Colbert’s nose. Crawford and Stanwyck were carefully lit, allowing them to play romantic leads well into their 40s. His insights into the vagaries of onscreen chemistry are revealing. He and Stephanie Powers, his costar on television’s long-running Hart to Hart, got along very well but led completely different and independent lives. William Powell and Myrna Loy were classic Hollywood’s
ideal married couple thanks to playing Nick and Nora Charles in movies based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, but off-screen they were simply colleagues. He neglects to mention that Crawford and Clark Gable, paired eight times, lit up the screen and were real-life lovers. He writes movingly about the pressures Wood faced from her family as a lauded child performer, as a teenage actress, and as an adult star. He admires her talent, her ambition, but says nothing made her
as happy as motherhood. He cites many friends and colleagues, including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and David Niven, for helping him move on after her death by drowning. He has been happily married to Jill St. John for 26 years, and writes touchingly about her. Acting and stardom don’t consume her. She would, he guesses, accept a great part if it came along, but she’s happy with a myriad of other interests. Clearly, Wagner was more than a pretty-boy teen idol. He learned as he went along. He may never have given an Oscarwinning performances, but he has usually been a welcome screen presence. He has also produced many successful television series, including Hart to Hart and Charlie’s Angels, as well as pictures he made with Taylor and Hepburn. But what comes across most emphatically in this rewarding book is his tremendous love and respect for women, for their minds as well as their physical attributes. The movie business is misogynistic, so it’s refreshing to read a sympathetic, wellinformed account of what women have faced and continue to endure. Filmgoers who read Wagner’s recollection of these celebrated actresses will gain an appreciation of the price they often paid to make audiences happy.t