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Distillations: All the Bar's a Stage at The Speakeasy 

Wednesday, Apr 2 2014

I was sitting on a fake antique couch, decked out in a suit and hat, as a group of moderately drunk women tried to figure out who around here was "real."

One jerked her thumb in my direction. "Him?" she said. "He's definitely an actor."

"Oh yeah," her friends agreed.

I've been called worse. I shrugged and made a gesture against the brim of my hat. That seemed to be all the confirmation they needed. If they were right, they weren't allowed to talk to me unless I spoke to them; but I could start a monologue about betrayal, or a dialogue about fascism, or burst into song, at any minute.

If they were wrong, I was just one more guy they weren't talking to.

When I first came to San Francisco, I spent a lot of time trying to find The Next Big Thing in theater. I was convinced that it was here somewhere, waiting to be discovered, and I wanted to be there.

I gave up after about two years. Let's be honest: The Bay Area theater scene is mediocre. Theater in San Francisco is far more likely to involve narcissistic directors making a strong statement about war (they're against it) through wooden dialogue (they're for it) than it is to provide a reason to look up from your phone.

I've seen some extraordinary shows here over the years — absolutely — but if you're asking me "what are the odds that a new play in San Francisco will entertain, let alone inspire, me?" I'd say stick with Flappy Bird.

Boxcar Theatre's new production, The Speakeasy, is giving the S.F. theater scene some much-needed much ado. The show creates a 1923 speakeasy and offers audiences the experience of drinking in it for a few hours, observing plots unfold and taking advantage of the entertainment.

Some of the people there are actors. Most are not. It's not always clear how to tell the difference, unless and until a spotlight shines down on someone.

Is it a good theatrical experience? Is it art?

That's not my problem: I review bars. And I am thrilled to say that The Speakeasy, and its 1923 Prohibition-era club, makes a strong case for being the best bar in San Francisco. The fact that it doesn't exist only adds to the allure.

The meticulous setting is lovingly crafted in every detail. The drink list is limited but exquisite, the cocktail menu having been designed and tested by co-producer/technical director Geoffrey Nolan and playwright (of other shows) Daniel Heath — who, full disclosure, was a colleague of mine for several years in a literary company I was eventually kicked out of for monologuing about betrayal and bursting into song. Several drinks, like the "Italian Cowboy" and the "Cleopatra," were invented just for this show, and I advise you to try them all ... if you can handle your liquor.

But it's the experience itself — of meeting contacts at a hidden location, of sitting in the bar and reconstructing history, of gambling (for no actual stakes) at the blackjack tables, of sitting in the cabaret watching performances from the vaudeville era, of wondering what everybody's story is ... and maybe getting up the courage to ask ...

Forget art: As a bar experience, it's magnificent. I am now of the opinion that every bar should be run by a theater company.

A bar, after all, is partly what you make it: The lousiest gin joint in the world can still host a magical night if you bring it yourself. Bad bars make that hard — good bars subtly encourage sparks of life. Great bars make demands on their customers that don't even feel like demands — they feel like opportunities you can take advantage of. A little inviting theatricality can make all the difference to an ordinary beer hall.

The cover is steep, I'll grant you: $60 for the show, plus more for the drinks, a reserved table, and a ticket to the after-bar. But Boxcar is inventing the form as it goes along: This is the cost of being there, at the beginning.

Maybe Speakeasy will make it as theater, and maybe it won't. But I'm telling you, it's the bar I'd bring my favorite out-of-town guests to, if I could find it again on a foggy San Francisco night.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs


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