“The funeral happened in one room, and the birth of my mother in another,” she said.
As she became more and more involved in her research, she decided to turn the tragic yet fascinating piece of family history into an immersive play, out of which emerged Speakeasy Dollhouse. The show was previously based in The Back Room in the Lower East Side (read our review here) and on Friday will make its summer debut at Williamsburg’s Weylin, inside of the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank (check out our tour of the recently restored space here).Von Buhler emphasized that when she meant the play was going to be interactive, she wasn’t talking about a lucky audience member scoring an occasional one-on-one with the actors, a la “Sleep No More.” At “Speakeasy Dollhouse,” audience members are actively integrated into the action, with each attendee being greeted by a fortune teller as they come in, and ascribed a specific role, even if it’s just delivering ice to a shop owner.
“The ice could be referring to diamonds, or it could just be ice,” von Buhler said in a conspiratory tone. “There’s a lot of intrigue, a lot of infidelity.” She also added that the show’s audience really commits to the whole “swinging ’20s” (or better said, “’30s”) theme. “People do get quite dressed up. With some people, it’s hard to tell if they’re the actors or not!”The premise of the show follows that of your basic murder mystery (except for the fact that it’s all, you know, true). Audiences follow the life of von Buhler’s grandfather and even witness him getting shot (one audience member is tasked with trying to aid Spano as he lays dying). That’s when the real fun begins, von Buhler said. Audiences can explore the floors of Weylin and have to parse through gossip, misinformation, and clues from various actors to discover the real reason behind Spano’s murder, as well as who gave the orders. “We actually have a trial at the end and everybody participates,” she said. “But it’s not a cheesy murder mystery, because we never will know exactly what happened. You’ll leave with your own take on things,” she added.
The story is also an ever-evolving project. “The play changes as we find out more,” von Buhler explained. “I was able to connect the story to a very well-known mobster named Dutch Schultz, who I believe had something to do with my grandfather’s murder.” You can check out more of von Buhler’s research here.
For von Buhler, the project has been both a gratifying personal and historical endeavor. “It’s really an interesting piece of New York history,” she said, adding that the show’s extensive set pieces and detailed decor are meant to accurately reflect the time period, complete with a speakeasy space and everything.
But researching and creating the show also gave von Buhler a greater insight into her own family history. The story is narrated by von Buhler’s teenage alter ego, who takes audience members back in time to explore the occurrences of that era. Von Buhler said that the show was particularly fascinating for her mother to watch, who actually features in the play (she was born the day Spano died).
Tickets start at $60. There will be four shows in the summer, starting tomorrow, July 22, and then continuing on Saturday July 23, August 12, and August 13.