Looking beguilingly exotic with her distinct features and her black, stylishly angled beret, the woman is curt, maybe even slightly demeaning as she tells me to turn around. There are some dangerous people in the crowd tonight, and you don’t want to turn your back on them. Besides, she tells me a bit more reassuringly, if I lean back against the guardrail and let my arm slip down to the staircase rail below, I can keep my eyes on the crowd while being able to feel if anyone is creeping up behind me…
Cold War Lounge: The Asset is an immersive, espionage-themed pop-up from Spy Brunch, CoAct Productions and Sampson Creative Enterprises that ran for a single weekend at the Brack Shop Tavern in downtown L.A. Written by Nick Rheinwald-Jones and directed by Lyndsie Scoggin and Payden Ackerman, this one-hour experience set in the swinging 1960s marks a return by Rheinwald-Jones and Scoggin to the retro spy genre they explored in 2017’s Safehouse ’77. A tighter, simpler experience than the two-hour Safehouse ‘77, Cold War Lounge nevertheless offers a similar blend of objective-driven sandbox exploration combined with tracked interactions. It’s also, it turns out, set in the same universe, serving as an indirect, standalone prologue to Safehouse ’77 and the upcoming Safehouse ’82.
Rheinwald-Jones freely admits to being a spy movie superfan, and it’s invigorating to see him once again working in the genre he so clearly loves. His script is ripe with compelling, complex characters and rich with covert intrigue. However, while Safehouse ’77 was largely free of real-world history, the same isn’t true for Cold War Lounge, as the title plainly suggests. Here, the two agencies at play are the CIA and the KGB, and while The Asset never ceases to be fun, lively and slightly boozy, it’s more than willing to shine a spotlight on the murky ethics of international intelligence in between its lighter moments of clue-searching and subterfuge.
Cold War Lounge: The Asset offers audiences a good deal of agency. You’re given a mission at the start of the evening, but it’s up to you whether you attempt to complete it or not. After the show’s tracked opening, it switches to more of a sandbox style and you’re free to talk to whomever you’d like. This allows you to largely craft the sort of experience you’re interested in, while also uncovering details about the show’s half-dozen key characters. In the process, you might find that the ones you most sympathize with may not be acting in America’s interests.
Take Esmerelda, for example. Played by immersive veteran Deirdre Lyons with all of the conflicting emotions you’d expect for a character considering betraying her homeland, this longtime Soviet agent has become disillusioned to the point that she’s willing to tell the CIA everything she knows, provided they can get her family out of the USSR. However, if you then talk to CIA field agent Somerset, played indelibly by actor Graydon Schlichter, it quickly becomes clear that while he sees Esmerelda as a potentially valuable asset – the one the show’s subtitle is likely referring to – the United States government isn’t interested in risking American lives to save a family of Russians.
Yet while Somerset’s response feels heartless, things take on a different shape when you consider the context. For the CIA to send agents into the USSR to extract Esmerelda’s family would be seen as a hostile action of a foreign adversary and could lead to war between the world’s two nuclear-armed superpowers. Somerset’s just being practical and putting the needs of the nation and the world before that of Esmerelda’s family. But does that make sacrificing innocents, including children, just to obtain information okay?
As you can see, the decisions aren’t so straightforward in Cold War Lounge, and the show’s actors do a stellar job conveying the toll these uncertain ethics take on the men and women of our nation’s intelligence community. Along with Lyons’ Esmerelda and Schlichter’s Somerset – who uses his skill with playing cards to wonderful effect throughout the night – I was particularly impressed with Scoggin, who in addition to directing and producing also takes on the role of a lounge singer caught between both sides. Scoggin isn’t known for her acting, but she more than holds her own with a complicated character prone to making emotional rather than practical decisions – a dangerous habit in the all-or-nothing world of international espionage. Rounding out the core cast are Alexander Demers and Lauren Hayes playing operatives on opposing sides of the conflict. As Ivan, Demers manages to charm as a loyal KGB agent, using a chess board to provide a layered allegory for the evening’s affairs–noting the importance of who is moving the pieces. Hayes, on the other hand, plays CIA agent Adelaide as a no-nonsense firebrand, with impressive levels of knowledge on combat tactics, interrogation methods and warfare (she’s the one who scolded me for turning my back on the crowd).
Cold War Lounge: The Asset was born out of the opportunity to stage a show in the Brack Shop Tavern, with nearly all of it taking place upstairs in the bar’s VIP/private room area. The show makes the most of the location, peppering it with just enough period details to give it the retro feel it needs and curtaining off sections to create private rooms where smaller encounters take place throughout the evening. It’s a good space for an immersive show, entirely removed from the rest of the bar, but it does feel a little small for an audience of twelve. While the tight quarters don’t distract all that much from the events of the night, reducing the audience size slightly might make for an even better experience.
A bigger frustration, however, is that for most of the show, it’s not fully clear what the true objective is. Having gone through it, I can now say that the goal is to put together a series of newspaper segments to reveal a hidden phrase. When told to a specific character, this phrase will allow you to decide which of the two sides wins. The problem with this is that none of it is ever actually told to you, so no one in our audience realized that we should have been focusing on the newspaper clippings until it was too late, and our ending had been determined by a coin flip. Looking at the experience as a whole, though, this may not have been a bad thing. Cold War Lounge: The Asset’s greatest strength is its script, world and characters. While letting the audience, or a member of it, choose the victor feels like an appropriate way to end a show that’s often about making hard decisions, piecing together a puzzle to achieve that seems unnecessarily distracting, especially considering how unclear the importance of it was.
It’s something that could easily be fixed if the show is remounted, though, and let’s hope it is because Cold War Lounge: The Asset is a thrilling, fun night out that celebrates the spy genre while exploring the often murky ethics within it through strong acting and an intricate and evocative script. It’s produced by a team that seems to bring out the best in each other and features a memorable cast of characters that you won’t soon forget. But more importantly, it reminds us that despite what decades of Bond films may tell us, in the exotic world of stylishly dressed, perfectly manicured spies, no one’s hands are truly clean.
Cold War Lounge: The Asset has concluded its run, but follow CoAct Productions, Spy Brunch and Sampson Creative Enterprises for upcoming events. Make sure to subscribe to our Event Calendar for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.