Those who maintain that Teatro ZinZanni is a racket are officially correct now that mobsters have seized der Spiegeltent as their hideout. What more appropriate theme for this stunt-studded, five-course cabaret shakedown than organized crime? Improv cutup and TZZ regular Frank Ferrante is back as Caesar, who has gambled away the tent to Big Sam Kinkaid, a zoot-suited homme fatale mob boss (also played by Ferrante). Surrounded by over-the-top minions and molls, Kinkaid's reluctant reunion with his long-lost amore Myrna (Dietrich-like beauty Dreya Weber) loosely binds about half the scenes of the "story" (credited to Ferrante and Weber; Norman Langill directs). The rest of Gangsters in Love is a grab-bag variety show, with live music by Francine Reed and the witty and spontaneous Orchestra DeVille.
TEATRO ZINZANNI: GANGSTERS OF LOVE Teatro ZinZanni, 222 Mercer St., 802-0015. $106 and up. Runs Wed.-Sun.; see zinzanni.org for exact schedule. Ends Sept. 30.
The Rough Guide to TZZ: Not all seats are created equal. There is a major comfort and price differential between the tables on the main floor and the shared, eight-person general-admission booths around the edges. Sight lines can be terrible on the periphery; as a result, you may need a neck massage the next day. The benches are high and shallow, which left my dangling legs numb and freezing. Still, these are small inconveniences considering you're sitting in a gorgeous, century-old Belgian "mirror tent" with intricate woodwork and rich velvet decor.
While munching the first course (which turned out to be the best, a muffin-sized savory tart with cheese and mushrooms garnished with pickled vegetables), we meet the sinewy, helium-voiced Andrea Conway Doba as Mitzi, who's soon swinging from the chandelier. In the following vignettes, she's pursued by gangster suitors vying for her attention. Among them, Joe De Paul makes the most of his paunchy shortness in a funny strip routine, and Wayne Doba does an endearingly gentle "Mr. Bojangles" tap dance that stole many hearts, including mine.
The most visually memorable acts were Ben Wendel and Rachel Nehmer's trapeze work and the lovely Ms. Weber singing and swinging on a rope in a nude body suit. A less successful glamour scene puts four rock-hard ladies in Josephine Baker–style banana dresses. Their rendition of "I've Never Seen a Straight Banana" is decidedly unsexy but quite funny.
Down among the dinner tables, per TZZ custom, Ferrante roams the audience for victims to (willingly) humiliate. During my show, he plucked a man and woman from separate tables and had them taste soup from a gigantic spoon—then commanded them to kiss each other while the audience roared. In his popular contest segment, in which three patrons endure various mortifications, he taunted one long-haired volunteer, "Jesus Christ! You're eating for 12 now!"
While the acts start slow and get better, chef Erik Carlson's food declines steadily. The lobster vichyssoise was a corn-flavored chowder thick with undercooked flour—though slightly redeemed by a dollop of orange caviar. The Waldorf salad had pleasant elements (walnuts, apples, grapes, strawberries) with nothing to say to one another. (The solution? Drown them in in white dressing.) Clearly, food is not the priority here. And since each time I leaned toward the plate I blocked my tablemates' view of the show, I wound up eating lightly. My friend's "Sassy Myrna Malloy" cocktail ($12) was a peachy sweet/sour purr. Our competent waiter, understandably frustrated by having to serve under difficult conditions, seemed a bit oppressed. The waitstaff earn every cent of their gratuity.
At a little over three hours, plus milling time in the curiosity-shop lobby, Gangsters makes for a leisurely evening, with plenty of pauses to chat between acts. During these lulls, you're always guessing what piebald surprise will come next. The show shifts in a blink from a juggler on a shaky six-tier platform to an audience member being fitted for cement shoes. And if the menu doesn't delight, think of the food premium as protection money: We pay that price to let the show go on.