When the Dead Speak, You Had Better Listen

Cynthia von Buhler's Speakeasy Dollhouse


Ignore the warnings your parents gave you as children. Be nosy and talk to strangers.

Wander. If you sit in one place all night you will miss everything.

If you have any questions or need assistance come and find me. I will whisper secrets in your ear.

Cynthia von Buhler

Send from the future.”

I received this email the day before participating in Cynthia von Buhler’s immersive play Speakeasy Dollhouse. A few days before this, I was sent emails containing real documentation from the coroner’s office, as well as newspapers clippings about the murder of Frank Spano, von Buhler’s grandfather. You don’t attend this event, you are immersed in the ongoing attempts to solve the mystery about why Spano was killed. Despite that rather dark description, Speakeasy Dollhouse is actually a festive, carnivalesque affair. I arrived at the location, which is staged in a mobster’s former Lower East Side speakeasy. Two policemen greeted me and engaged in some friendly chatter — but what they really wanted was a password to let them know I was an okay dame.  I went down a dark flight of stairs, and then opened a doorway into the holodeck of Star Trek.


Almost everyone was dressed up — I could not differentiate the actors from the audience. The set is elaborate and every detail threw me back in time to a 1920’s speakeasy. At the bar I ordered a special cup of coffee, talked to my friends, and drank in the ambience. I couldn’t say when the play started or when it ended. I was given a part to play — that of a hired killer. I talked to mobsters, socialites, burlesque dancers, Frank’s possible lover, his pregnant wife, and his son. I had to ask the mobster Dutch Shultz where the after party was, but not let on that he would soon be murdered as well. It was a time-travel experience where I wandered in between the real and the unreal, the known and unknown. Von Buhler’s grandfather was shot and killed by John Guerrieri, but despite a confession, was let go. Von Buhler wrote about meeting the granddaughter of Guerrieri , who had no idea of this history. The more I heard, read, and relived, the further I fell into the rabbit hole of a weird narrative that invited me to participate even after the event ended. Attendees are asked to go to the Speakeasy blog to speculate on the reasons behind Spano’s killing, and these answers then add evidence to the next production.

Even more deliciously macabre,  the play is modeled upon an actual set of dollhouses that von Buhler built to explore the circumstances regarding her grandfather’s murder. We can have all kinds of uncanny fun with that, of course, but understand that even this creepy little detail is part of American history. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, created in the 1930’s by Frances Glessner Lee, were dollhouses that detectives used to “better assess visual evidence” in the most mysterious and violent of deaths. These studies inspired von Buhler’s own grotesque recreation of events (von Buhler). Such layering of storytelling, reporting, and mythmaking is but one reason to experience this play if you live or are visiting New York City.  The other is this: Imagine Edgar Allen Poe has created a speakeasy in the Enterprise’s holodeck, and you get to play in that universe for three hours, attending the most fabulous party while helping to solve a real-life crime. There you go.

To order tickets, go here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/214593

To view evidence and more of the history about life and murder of Frank Spano, visit the Speakeasy Dollhouse blog 

Photographs used with permission