A funny thing happened at Dead Letter No. 9, a new performance space in Brooklyn. It was shortly after 10 p.m. on a Saturday in late October. The evening’s show was over, but the audience didn’t want to leave and instead crowded into the adjoining bar for cocktails, mocktails and flatbreads.
Although New York City has its cabaret spaces and piano bars, theater and nightlife mostly occupy separate addresses. Blame it on temperament, real estate, or the lingering effects of the cabaret laws (finally repealed in 2017), which required a license to allow patrons to dance, but generally those who fancy a drink and ‘a show at the same time had to settle for overpriced chardonnay in goblets. Ah, the glamour.
New shows and new venues are blurring these lines. Despite being a woman with a hilarious tolerance for alcohol and who likes to stay in bed just when the cable TV shows are getting good, I have attended three such performances in the past few weeks, exchanging a good night’s sleep against this overabundant approach (drinks, snacks, dancing, card tricks, elaborate lingerie) to evening entertainment.
I started with “Dead Letter No. 9,” the name of both the show and the nondescript building that houses it on Grand Street in Williamsburg, not far from the East River. After entering through the wrong door, a friend and I were redirected to another door, which led to the space’s pleasant, unassuming bar. One seltzer later, it was time for the show to begin.
The front of the space proper was a dimly lit mailroom, filled with misplaced letters and lost packages. We were fitted with Casio watches and given our own letter, an invitation to a 2007 graduation party in Redding, Connecticut, then led down a hallway and into a small room decorated like a cabin in the trees. (There were two other rooms available: a 1986 North Carolina porch and a 1993 California camp.) We sat on a creaky metal cot. Four other audience members lounged elsewhere. A host dressed as a postman offered us vodka, beer and bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
At first, the conversation was of the stilted: where-are-you-from-and-how-did-you-discover-the-show type. Then, as the minutes ticked by on the Casios and other attendees mixed vodka into their hard lemonade, everyone relaxed. People went. People came. When the postman left, the father of the so-called graduates joined us. He seemed to want to talk about an old football injury, but we had all become acquainted by then. We had our own story to pursue. Somehow I found myself talking about both the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and the time a magician sawed me in half. (Yes, I was sober. And no, I don’t go out much.) After a very quick hour, the Casio alarm went off, signaling that we needed to leave the room. I never learned much about recent graduates.
When my friend and I came out, the people who had left before us were waiting in the bar. As a play, “No. 9″ was thin, stronger on atmosphere than on narrative or action. But as an icebreaker, its effectiveness was maximum. Everyone seemed to want to stay and continue the conversation. A few actors, who had since changed their costumes, also joined the group. Participants could then move deeper into the space, where a dance floor awaited them.
“If I’m going to let loose in a nightclub space, I’d like to be able to do it in the same room where I can have a quiet bite and rich conversation,” Michael Ryterband, creator and sound designer of “No. 9” , said in a recent interview. “That’s what we did. It’s absolutely an alternative to nightlife.
His partner Taylor Myers, who managed production, gently corrected him: “It’s not an alternative. It’s nightlife.
The following week, I took the L train a few stops further into Brooklyn to attend “Cocktail Magique,” a Company XIV show that started about a year ago. I had found the company’s previous shows, like “Seven Sins,” very sexy, even exhausting. But “Cocktail Magique” is a looser, more dizzying affair, starting with a shot of high-end Jell-O (chartreuse!) and ending with a frozen dessert shaped like a chicken leg, complete with a routine of animals in obscene ball between the two.
“I really like that this space feels as celebratory as possible, that it feels really bountiful and inclusive,” Austin McCormick, the company’s founder, told me.
“Cocktail Magique”, created and directed by McCormick, takes the form of a playful burlesque revue. New York has no shortage of burlesque, but unlike the Slipper Room or House of Yes, in which the acts function as a complement to bar service, “Cocktail Magique” is the space’s sensual, boozy raison d’être. designed.
Audience members sit facing the stage, decorated with a multitude of jungle animals and filigree. Strong cocktails complement the various burlesque routines, which include a dance number to “Love Potion No. 9” and a tightrope act atop champagne bottles. The magic may not dazzle and not all the scenes are tasteful (there is a tribute to Josephine Baker’s banana dance), but the performers, magnificently dressed, are superb and their pleasure is intoxicating . (The same goes for the strong cocktails, which I had to abandon after one test sip.) The emphasis was on beauty and excess, from the iris-infused gin at Cleopatra’s Pearl to the corsets personalized and glitter pastes adorning the male and female performers.
As in “No.” 9″, the crowd lingered, finishing their cocktails and discussing what they had seen. McCormick, who also operates another space nearby, dreams of a theater that could double as a nightclub.
“People like to go out, have a drink, mix and mingle,” he said. “My fantasy is a place where we can do something cool after the show.”
Grimmer’s fantasies were on display at “Hypnotique” at the McKittrick Hotel, which is also home to the soon-to-be-concluded “Sleep No More.” The McKittrick, in Manhattan, often sought to extend the evening with magic shows, concerts, parties and other events. Billed as an evening of “spontaneous performances and mesmerizing dancers,” “Hypnotique” is a strip show and one of the saddest displays of eroticism I’ve ever seen – a dutiful, glitter-filled march from one topless exposure to another. . Spontaneity had fled.
Created by Whitney Sprayberry and Reginald Robson, “Hypnotique” invites the audience – their phones locked – into the Club Car bar where four men in mesh shirts made sexy faces and moved furniture while a singer sang “Light My Fire” . They were soon joined by six women dressed in printed dresses, sunglasses and grandmother’s scarves. Scarves are removed. The same goes for almost everything else. On songs like “Need You Tonight,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and “Bad Girls,” the routines were beautifully executed and almost entirely soulless. I felt more of a thrill at PTA meetings. My fire? Unlit.
The parade had an unvarying quality, with no complete routine until a dancer released her nipples. The dancers were thin, handsome and — unlike the joyous, polymorphous perversity of “Cocktail Magique” — mechanical and unenthusiastic as they wiggled and stalled. (I believe in every woman’s right to take off her clothes. I just want her to look like she has the idea.)
I did, however, appreciate the strobe-lit feathers that flew during a pillow fight scene and the yassified leaf blower used to tidy them up. Once the last balconette bra was removed, the evening probably turned (became?) into a dancing party. I wouldn’t know. It was past midnight, bedtime and several decades of feminist thought and progress. I was already sitting in the back seat of a car, heading to Brooklyn where a book and a cup of herbal tea awaited me – my nightlife alternative.