Eighty-five East Fourth Street is a typical early-20th-century East Village building: a brick box with a sprawling set of front steps leading up to a door and a column stack of squarish floors. Inside, the staircases are steep and narrow. One flight of steps, the old marble ones, is worn down in the middle with use, so that they look as if they're melting. The ground-floor lobby is covered with an ornate mosaic of blue-and-white tiles that a real estate agent might call charmingly distressed. Jovially sharing this space are two theaters, the Red Room and the Kraine, as well as the Horse Trade Productions office and the KGB bar.
There is nothing unusual about this place, at least that isn't unusual about the East Village in general. Except for the large number of deadly accidents, murders, and sightings of the paranormal and undead that have taken place on the site since the 1880's.
"Some may call it coincidence," a man sitting behind a music stand intones in Horse Trade and Radiotheatre's co-production of The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street, now playing in the Red Room Theater. "Some may call it the cold hard facts."
In this play, written and directed by Dan Bianchi, Radiotheatre does a remarkable job of exposing both the facts of this site's history and the legends that have risen up around it like so many skyscrapers of whispers.
Radiotheatre has polished up an unusual and effective storytelling technique. Like Orson Welles and company recording their radio horror-show "The War of the Worlds," a quartet of actors (Clyde Baldo, Frank Zilinyi, Karyn Plonsky, and Dan Almekinder), in nondescript clothes, sit behind music stands. Speaking into microphones held close to their faces, they tell us the story of the building, alternating between narration and Ken Burns-style role playing. Sound effects and an occasional puff of sinister, flame-colored smoke from a steam machine illustrate the oral stories.
Some fascinating characters are associated with 85 East Fourth Street. They include its tragic builder—pragmatic, anti-clerical Irish immigrant Frank Conroy; Lucky Luciano crony Gianni "Deep Pockets" Parmigiano; and the bizarre Sullivanian cult. The cast members assume all these roles in a spookily convincing manner and speak confidently in their polyphony of accents and dialects.
Several of the moments that are intended to be frightening are not as scary as they could be. Hearing actors scream isn't viscerally frightening unless the audience gets some sense, themselves, of what frightens the character. One tiny glitch in the generally impressive researching of the piece is the reference to a prowling monster called "Frankenstein." (In Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein is the mad doctor; his creation is a "creature without a name.")
Still, the stories themselves are terrifying, and Radiotheatre's technique of providing voices and sound effects forces the audience to recreate the horror's visual aspects as mental theater.
Much more horrific than any B-movie moment are the true stories of 85 East Fourth that Bianchi has unearthed, such as that of Lazarus, aka Otabenga, an African man who was imprisoned in a New York zoo during the 20th century. Or the cold hard fact that for more than a hundred years, New York City's prison population has been composed overwhelmingly of ethnic minorities, and it changed groups as the demographics of the city changed. In 1918, it was Eastern European Jews. Before that, it was the Irish immigrants who, Bianchi claims, later became the cops and locked up more recent newcomers.
Then there's the Brooklyn Bridge. Buried in its foundations are at least six bodies of workers killed in accidents during its construction—five more bodies than No. 85 has in its walls. Digging into one building's past, Bianchi finds New York haunted most chillingly by the effects of poverty and injustice.
The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street is an innovative piece, crafted out of great love for the city and its history, mixed with bewilderment and outrage at the horrors hidden in our local history. Go see it, and the "permanent occupants" are certain to accompany you out. They like to be remembered, and Radiotheatre gives them their wish.