Review: A Trip Back to Tammany Hall on the Eve of a New York City Election
A new immersive play considers the mayoral election of 1929.
Politics is awash in corruption. Crime is on the rise. The world seems on the brink of a major transformation. And yet, in New York City, the election is a fait accompli, what with an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, most of whom don't even bother to vote. This is a fair assessment of election night 2021, but I'm actually describing the municipal election of 1929, which is the setting of Tammany Hall, the scrappy yet surprisingly engrossing new immersive play at Soho Playhouse, an ideal site for a show like this.
The building that houses the theater was once the site of the Huron Club, a meeting house for Tammany, the organization that kept a stranglehold on the Democratic Party in New York City for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In small groups, we are invited upstairs to the clubhouse where we meet Tammany bigwigs like Boss George Washington Olvany (Andrew Broaddus) and his deputy John Curry (Shahzeb Hussain). We are there to witness a debate between the mayoral candidates.
The incumbent is Democrat James Walker (Martin Dockery), an affable dandy who artfully dodges uncomfortable questions while mentally planning his next lavish trip to Europe. He's a lot like our modern-day mayor apparent, Eric Adams.
The challenger is Fiorello LaGuardia (Christopher Romero Wilson), a raging bulldog of a congressman who smells corruption everywhere, and cannot hide his contempt for the political club hosting him this evening. Although a Republican, he enjoys the quiet support of the new Democratic governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who sees Tammany as an obstacle to his grander national ambitions.
After the debate, we mingle with some of the more colorful characters at the Huron Club before we are invited to see a backer's audition for the new musical, Violet, which is more of a vehicle for money laundering than it is for its star, Betty Compton (Marie Anello), who happens to be the mayor's girlfriend. We are also asked to cast our vote for mayor. While the historical election of 1929 was a walk for Walker, I was curious to know the actual tally of the vote at my performance. Name recognition is crucial in politics, and only one of these candidates has an airport named after him.
But is it really fair that we remember LaGuardia as the progressive hero and Walker as the disgraced crook forced to resign in 1932 after the Seabury investigations discovered Tammany's complicity in an extortion racket? As we are reminded throughout the play, Walker created the Sanitation Department, stabilized the water supply, expanded mass transit, and consolidated public hospitals. We are still living in the city Beau James Walker and his cronies built.
Creators Alexander Wright and Darren Lee Cole (who is also the producing artistic director of Soho Playhouse) tell the story of a period of great development coinciding with massive graft. Their script uncovers the symbiotic relationship between cops and robbers. And it asks us to consider the distorting power of identity politics, which Tammany employed masterfully when it came to its working-class Irish constituents. That makes Tammany Hall uncommonly ambitious for an immersive play, the best of which are mostly concerned with cocktails and costumes.
On that front, Tammany Hall puts on a good show too: Set designer Dan Daly has obviously gone through pains to re-create the authentic feeling of a Jazz Age Tammany clubhouse, right down to the beautifully carved whiskey tumblers, which are sturdy enough to double as weapons (a useful feature during Prohibition). Grace Jeon's costumes are similarly detailed, while Emily Clarkson's lighting allows us to see everything while maintaining a noirish mood.
Wright and Cole (who both also directed) complement good design with strong acting. In addition to the perfectly cast mayoral candidates, several supporting actors deliver memorable performances: A lovers' quarrel between Legs Diamond (Nathaniel J. Ryan) and his girlfriend KiKi (Chloe Kekovic) is a dramatic high point of the evening. As Compton, Anello exudes genuine angst about the plight of a friend who has been ensnared in Tammany's web. She tries in vain to discover her whereabouts, before expressing her magnificent breakdown in an 11 o'clock number that really could be on a Broadway stage (original songs by Gavin Whitworth).
All of this comes as a delightful surprise at the Soho Playhouse, which in recent years has been mostly a home to inane solo shows and vanity projects (events like Fleabag are the rare exception). I expect theaters to tread cautiously coming out of a period as traumatic as the Covid pandemic, which makes what Cole and company are doing remarkably brave. In both art and politics, sometimes it pays to take a leap into the unfamiliar.
Unfortunately, this is a lesson that New York voters have usually learned the hard way, only after entrenched power leads to a meaner, dirtier streets. Tonight, we'll see if the voters of 2021 are any wiser than those of 1929. Personally, my money is on Tammany.