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Tammany Hall


Martin Dockery (l) as Mayor Walker and Christopher Romero as Fiorello LaGuardia. (Photo: SoHo Playhouse)


Tammany Hall

By Fern Siegel

Mayor Jimmy Walker embodied the Jazz Age spirit. He was also one of NYC’s most notorious and corrupt mayors, owing his prominence to Tammany-era politics. Tammany Hall, which controlled the Democratic Party, was a powerful political organ. And Arnold Rothstein, known as “Brains,” a brilliant underworld figure, helped transform a thug-like entity into organized crime.

It’s against this backdrop that the immersive theater performance “Tammany Hall,” now at the SoHo Playhouse, doubling as Tammany’s Huron Club, is set.

The stock market has just crashed. It’s election night, Nov. 5, 1929. The race is between incumbent Mayor Jimmy (J.J.) Walker (Martin Dockery), garbed in tailored suits and charming nightlife ways, and Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia (Christopher Romero). The “Little Flower” wants to enact reform and sweep the Tammany machine clean.

Grandiosity and glamour battle moral outrage and progressive politics.

The story of the election is the story of 1920s New York — brash, bold and beloved. Its characters are larger than life and the show rightly begins with a candidate’s debate. What’s inspired is the setting: a boxing ring at the Huron Club. It’s Prohibition — the liquor flows, the vice is striking and showgirls abound.

“Tammany Hall” isn’t a straight narrative. There are various subplots — an unexpected arrest, Governor FDR’s new edicts, election machinations and a new Broadway show — that keep the action moving. Audience members follow different characters – and they can interact with the actors when appropriate. This genre, which debuted decades ago in the Armory with the lavish “Tamara,” about the artistic Tamara de Lempika, keeps audiences on their toes.

The show is performance in motion. It takes place on various floors of the SoHo Playhouse, including the theater, where the play “Violet” is rehearsing, back stage at dressing rooms, the Mayor’s private suite, and the rooms where gangster Legs Diamond and various Walker associates meet.

Thanks to period-perfect costumes by Grace Jeon and sets by Dan Daly, which nicely showcase the Art Deco period, audiences get a taste of the Roaring Twenties. The cast, for the most part, comfortably inhabits their roles. Underboss curry (Shahzeb Hussain) and Walker’s latest fling Betty Compton (Marie Anello) are first-rate. They capture the period’s sensibility, sass and dark underbelly with ease. Dockery has some of Walker’s charm, certainly his figure, and embraces his role with swagger.

Martin Dockery as Mayor J.J. Walker and Marie Anello as Betty Compton, his mistress. (Photo: SoHo Playhouse)

However, adding a bit more history to key moments could enhance the entertaining show. Rothstein is a towering figure in his own right. This was the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series! Another famous gangster, Legs Diamond (Nathaniel Ryan) does appear, but Ryan lacks Diamond’s noted charisma and is too halting in his exchanges with the more natural showgirl Kiki (Cloe Kekovic).

Immersive theater isn’t an easy assignment. Actors have to engage with audience members, who may be more or less versed in the period, and more or less comfortable breaking the fourth wall. To the cast’s credit, they carry off “Tammany” with flourish.

The Twenties in New York represented a volatile decade in politics, economics and culture, mirroring our own era. Once elected, Walker was rarely at City Hall. Cronies got lucrative city contracts, like the expanded municipal bus system, the married mayor spent nights with Ziegfield dancer Betty Compton at his side, while city business was usually conducted over drinks at Tammany’s private club.

Even more telling is the play’s venue: The SoHo Playhouse. Built in 1826 on property John Jacob Astor purchased from Aaron Burr, the building was reconfigured to its current layout in 1920. The meeting hall on the main floor was transformed into a theater, with a notorious clubhouse above and a speakeasy below. It is rumored that Jimmy Walker and Betty Compton kept their love nest in the fourth floor penthouse. In short, in “Tammany Hall,” art imitates life.

Co-created and directed by Darren Lee Cole and Alexander Wright, “Tammany Hall” is an inspired subject for theater, especially as the corruption in 1920s New York reflected, in part, the chaos of our own age. The story line is lively, the real-life characters intriguing and the blast-from-the-past experience is fun. And because the Huron Club also serves drinks, you can enjoy the experience much as Walker and his cronies did — buzzed.

Tammany Hall -- SoHo Playhouse – 15 Vandam St. 

Running Time: 90 minutes

Tickets:, or at the box office, Tuesday - Sunday after 4 p.m.