End your weekend on a high note
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Apr. 6, 2012
If you're spending Sunday nights at home in your jammies watching "Mad Men," here's a reason - better yet, three - to program the DVR: cocktails, a disco ball and one female impersonator who, if you close your eyes, you'd swear was Billie Holiday.
SpeakEasy at L'Enfant Cafe in Adams Morgan is definitely an unorthodox way to end a weekend, but it's utterly worth a mildly bleary-eyed Monday morning. There, twice a month, L'Enfant owners Christopher Lynch and Jim Ball gently ferry out the stragglers enjoying Sunday crepes and cappuccinos, shutter the blinds (to stave off the prying eyes of passersby) and transform their tiny little nook of a cafe into a cabaret, complete with a disco ball and DJ who might spin Morrissey, Depeche Mode or Scissor Sisters.
The draw, however, is frequent host Joey Arias, a fixture of the downtown New York drag scene and a performer who's better known for playing venues with, oh, a hundred times the capacity. And Arias, who has the exaggerated features of Marlene Dietrich, a razor-sharp swath of dark black bangs and pencil-thin eyebrows arched over heavy-lidded eyes, gets rabid applause from the guests who fill every seat in the house.
Arias belts out everything from sad jazz songs (which he frequently punctuates with new lyrics playing off the fact that he's impersonating a woman) to raging rock numbers from the likes of Cream. The nights are Arias's to curate. One night, he brought in guitarist Brandon Seabrook and bassist Ben Allison (with whom he performed at Carnegie Hall), and another, the music was recorded, and his guest was another drag performer, Peppermint. Audience members should watch out; Arias and Co. are comics at their core, frequently picking on audience members, telling funny anecdotes and, on one occasion, performing the funniest version of Salt-N-Pepa's "Shoop" ever rapped by a 6-foot man in a blond wig.
The show doesn't take form, Arias says, till he gets in the spotlight and takes the temperature of the room. The 10:30 show gets a little wilder. "As it gets later, you want to hear something a little more up," he says. "You gotta crank it up a little bit."
The audience is frequently full of the city's entrepreneurs and creatives, whose weekends begin on Sunday after long Friday and Saturday work nights. Seated next to me at the bar one night was Eric Hirshfield, who until recently owned the 18th and U Duplex Diner next door to L'Enfant; on the other side sat Freddie Lutz, owner of Freddie's Beach Bar in Arlington.
Interest piqued? There's one important thing to know: Getting into SpeakEasy isn't as easy as showing up at the door. The show is offered in two seatings that require reservations usually at least a week in advance. The 7 p.m. seating includes a three-course dinner, while the 10:30 p.m. is a cocktail session.
The dinner service seems to overpromise and under-deliver; on one night, the vegetarian entree, a black pepper ravioli in a truffle-scented cognac butter sauce, didn't telegraph truffle or cognac and was soupier than it should have been. Dessert, too, showed up with a watery berry coulis and a smidge too much sugar. It's worth noting that for those on a budget, the 10:30 show is markedly less expensive: With the two-drink minimum, my tab came to about $40 after tax and tip, while my dinner visit rang up at $60 a person.
For the two performances this month that Arias won't be performing (he'll be tied up starring in his stage production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the puppet play "Arias With a Twist"), fellow drag entertainers Flotilla DeBarge, Peppermint and Lady Bunny will pick up where he left off.
Lynch recalls finding Arias the way most connections are made these days: over Facebook. The singer, who can trace his roots to the nascent drag community in New York in the early 1980s, once held court at the now-defunct New York club Bar d'O on Sunday nights. It was there that Lynch and Ball, onetime New Yorkers, first saw him. More than a decade later, when they were trying to figure out how to jump-start their Sunday-night business, they floated the idea of cabaret night not unlike those Bar d'O evenings, and oh, yes, they wondered if they could perhaps get the diva herself to headline.
Arias, who had recently starred in the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil production of the risque "Zumanity" and caught the theater world's attention with "Arias With a Twist," was strangely intrigued.
His old Bar d'O cabaret coven, consisting of the singers Raven O and Sherry Vine, had long since dissolved, Arias recalls. But he was drawn to reviving his own part of the act.
"I was in the middle of all these projects and stopped for a second, and thought . . . 'Oh. A Bar d'O thing.' "
"One of the things Joey likes," Lynch explains, "is that he doesn't play small venues like this anymore."
Events such as these "are what make the real artists, artists," Arias adds.
From the first show, the performer recalls, he was hooked. "The minute we walked in, we were like, 'Oh, this is going to happen all the time,' " says Arias. "I love the intimacy of the room, the idea of it being just tiny, and people just sitting back and having a great time."