It's fun to be invited into a private club, just as if we were members ourselves. That way, we get to enjoy the rush of instant friendliness and shared intimacies without all the nasty bits, such as attending committee meetings and raising funds.
This is the heady atmosphere that is created in The Secret Social, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. The new creation is the product of collaboration between CPT and Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant, the inspired troupe that brought its unique blend of inventive, improv-laced dinner-theater storytelling to Gordon Square the past two years.
This time the production, created by the ensemble and directed by Cynthia Croot, is quite a bit less outrageous (no one stimulating his nipples with an electric mixer, no simulated live birth). But that edgy, go-for-broke energy has been replaced with something almost as intriguing: a journey into a hidden world that begins as soon as you step away from the ticket window.
Without giving away any of the luscious details, let's just say that the audience is led, in small groups, through a labyrinth of stairs and narrow passageways (Note: this is not a wheelchair-accessible production). Along the way, cryptic information is provided about 12 princesses, 12 soldiers and 12 boats. Clearly there is something mystical afoot here.
Finally, you arrive at a drawn curtain, which is opened to reveal "The Secret Social Club," a long room with two rows of cabaret seating on each side and a large open space in the middle.
After you find your table, in one of six color-coded areas, you are free pick out a name tag (never your own name;to I selected "General Malaise") and visit the cash wine and beer bar. This is when you begin to interact with the Secret Social members, on an up-close and personal basis.
Among others, you will likely speak with both Cady ("Not Katie. It makes you think about me differently, doesn't it?") and Ray, played by CAGR veterans Connie Hall and Jeffrey Fracé. These are two awesomely gifted improv artists and actors, with such smooth riffs that you will soon believe you are exactly where they say you are.
They are joined by a Conni actor new to Cleveland, Lucille Duncan, who simmers with sensuous mystery as the svelte Madame X.
Many of the CPT actors who join them are just as good. Tony Cintrony (who plays the "living reliquary" Clarence) evokes a creepy yet charming vibe as he reveals various sacred items stashed in his long coat. And Lauren Joy Fraley's character, Étude, is enthused and loving in all the best ways.
Soon, everyone settles into their seats for the initiation of Boris (a sublimely innocent and winning Val Kozlenko) into the club. There are challenges of course, in which the audience participates, which include rock-paper-scissors, paper boat races and vegetable shuffleboard.
True to the Conni format, there are too many other random elements to describe as the story of princesses, soldiers and the Secret Social members unfolds. But some involve: rocking out to pop songs, a strip tease dance by Ray, a "most exquisite shoe" competition, and long-lost sacrifices that magically reappear. Naturally, there is also a meal. But this time it's a modest spread — kielbasa slices, tasty borscht or veggie stew, bread and farmers' cheese.
Thanks to the transformation wrought by set designer Ian Petroni, it truly feels you've wandered into a dance club from several decades ago.
Even without the breathtaking risks provided previously by Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant (the show), The Secret Social is a funny, fascinating and occasionally mind-tweaking trip out of your normal world. And that's well worth the price of admission to this one-night clandestine club.