Street Than Theater, a Mystery of New York -
NY TIMES: By JASON ZINOMAN (4.22.07)
“Accomplice: New York” audiences meet characters at Lower Manhattan locales, including a park.
I’m looking for a guy who knows about a “thing” — and I don’t see him anywhere. It’s very hush-hush, the kind of operation that began with an anonymous phone call. “Listen closely,” a whisperer with a Tony Soprano accent said, before filling me in on the top-secret meeting place. “Write it down. Burn it. And then eat the ashes. Youse got it?”
How did I get mixed up in this criminal plot? The same way that I found myself dancing to a Madonna song at a high school prom, drinking with tipsy relatives at an Irish wake and solving a mystery in a Victorian mansion. I went to the theater.
“Accomplice: New York,” an audience-friendly blend of walking tour, mobster movie and scavenger hunt that treats Lower Manhattan as its sprawling stage, is part of what has become one of the few consistently — and, for some people, perplexingly — popular Off Broadway genres: interactive theater.
In a cultural moment when television viewers choose the next “American Idol” and Time magazine celebrates You as its Person of the Year, theater audience members have more opportunities than ever to be the stars of the show. They break dance at the 1980s-themed “Awesome ’80s Prom,” and gab and ogle with the girls at “Birdy’s Bachelorette Party” and “The Fantasy Party.” Even on Broadway they may take part in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Of course audience participation has been around for as long as tossed tomatoes, but this particular model didn’t really take off until the opening of “Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding,” which has been running — and gesticulating — since 1988 (with an interruption or two). Partly inspired by the environmental theater movement, “Tony ’n’ Tina” aimed to break down the divide between the audience and actors. Since then, interactive theater has hardened into an often crass formula featuring a thin plot stitched together by a few broad stereotypical characters (the slutty cheerleader, the drunken Irishman) who interact with and gently encourage the audience to play along.
Critics are generally dismissive, and so are many New Yorkers. Just the night before I went out looking for that guy in “Accomplice,” I saw a series of one-act shows at the Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where one performer responded to a shout from the audience by gushing with sarcasm: “Great. Interactive theater.”
But if some people roll their eyes, others — especially tourists — can’t get enough. Joe Corcoran, the original producer of “Tony ’n’ Tina,” which he contends remains the benchmark for the form, said: “When people go to see a play, they sit back and say, ‘Entertain me.’ With interactive theater there’s less of a burden to entertain because people create their own fun. People feel comfortable at weddings. They know what to expect and how to act, and that’s why they like it.”
“Accomplice,” by contrast, works on the opposite principle: People will like it because they don’t know what’s next. Tom Salamon, a creator of “Accomplice,” compares the experience to that of reality television. “When you are watching ‘Survivor,’ you are sort of, on some level, wondering how you would react in these situations. That’s part of the appeal,” he said. “So much of entertainment happens to you. People want to get out of their seats.”
“Accomplice,” which began its third season this month, not only gets people out of their seats; it encourages them to hit the streets. Featuring a shadowy, half-coherent narrative involving a nefarious plot by Bill Gates to acquire jewels from the princess of Monaco, it asks its audiences to travel into the depths of Chinatown, into the back room of a restaurant in Little Italy and even onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Along the way the gaggle of audience members (no more than 10 a show) must decipher puzzles and read crude maps to figure out the windy route.
Tickets costs $50 each, and the tours have been filling up quickly in recent weeks. The company’s Web site is accomplicenewyork.com.
When Mr. Salamon, 36, came up with the idea with his sister Betsy Salamon-Sufott, 42, they had no background in theater. Ms. Salamon-Sufott is a psychotherapist, and Mr. Salamon worked in film production. “We were on a walking tour three years ago of the Lower East Side and Chinatown,” Mr. Salomon said. “We thought it was fun, but it had a field-trippy vibe. We thought: Wouldn’t it be fun to visit all these places in a different way? We dismissed any learning. We just wanted to have fun.”
What began as a lark for friends and other New Yorkers gradually caught on, until the demand led Mr. Salamon to quit his job and Ms. Salamon-Sufott to scale back her practice. A turning point was when the actor Neil Patrick Harris, a fan, praised “Accomplice” on the ABC morning show “Live With Regis and Kelly” last June. Ticket sales soared; suddenly tourists from all over the world were calling. “Neil broke us in a way,” Mr. Salamon said. “It was an underground thing, but then it took off.”
The success led to a second version in February, “Accomplice: The Village,” with a similar story line, but which takes place in the West Village. “Accomplice: San Francisco” plans an Aug. 1 opening, and there is talk of an “Accomplice: Austin” and an “Accomplice: Los Angeles” (to be co-produced by Mr. Harris).
“Accomplice” is not easy to describe; revealing too much would ruin it. It begins with a mobster and ends with a moll; in between are an assortment of figures, giving a feel more of a series of random scenes than a unified whole. Unlike other interactive dramas, which create a contained world like a bar mitzvah celebration or a wedding, this unpredictable show never presents a consistent subculture, which may be part of its charm. It has a disorienting effect that makes you look at the city with skeptical eyes.
Is that old lady on the bench for real or is she an actor? Isn’t that construction worker a little theatrical? The comedy of this show owes a debt to the borscht belt, and some may find the clues a bit rudimentary, but at its best “Accomplice” breeds a certain teasing paranoia, like being thrown into the middle of the Michael Douglas movie “The Game.”
From the start, the play challenges the audience to keep its cool. I was waiting at my meeting point for several minutes, carefully scrutinizing every pedestrian who glanced at me. I started to think that my contact wasn’t coming, then spotted a hunched-over individual with slicked-back hair and black leather gloves lurking in the shadows with conspiratorial eyes. That, I thought, must be my man. (The circle of ticket buyers was also a giveaway.)
He flashed me a knowing glance, but only for a second. The feds, he told us, are everywhere. He gave me my instructions, which involved handing plane tickets to Miami to some friends who, as he put it, went to a “university” upstate; it was a “federal, not a state, school.”
Before sending me off, he added one last piece of advice. “Hey, remember, don’t get run over by a bus,” he said, pausing to look both ways. “Some of my best friends have gotten run over by a bus.”