April 23, 2019

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The Playboy Club in 2019: Show Tunes and an Identity Crisis

The Playboy Club in 2019: Show Tunes and an Identity Crisis
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“Let’s be outrageous,” Brandon James Gwinn murmured into a microphone. “Let’s misbehave.”

It was Monday night at the Playboy Club and everyone seemed to be behaving relatively well. People chatted, checked their phones, ate prawns served pink and prone on a bed of crushed ice, like sunbathers stranded atop some glacier. Besides, when a culture is grappling, however clumsily, with questions of sexual equality and power differentials, what would misbehavior look like anyway?

Five of the Playboy Bunnies lined up, a fluffy-tailed choo-choo train, and demonstrated the bunny hop as the band played along. Everyone was invited to join in. Max Chernin, one of the evening’s guest performers, grabbed the nearest waist and gamely hop hop hopped. Would a conga line form? No. Mr. Chernin sat back down.

This new iteration of the Playboy Club — New York’s original branch closed in 1986 — opened in September, just west of the theater district. With its velvet banquettes, black walls and Sputnik chandeliers it resembles a midcentury bordello. Every Monday since March 25 it has been hosting Playboy Live!, a showcase for Broadway talent that joins other off-night hotspots like Feinstein’s/54 Below, Birdland and, more recently, the Green Room 42 at the Times Square Yotel. Tuesdays are for backgammon.

During the first set, in the dining room, Mr. Gwinn and the T-Shirt Tuxedo Trio, with Anne Fraser Thomas on vocals, purred jazz standards and a few torch songs, plus a bossa nova version of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” scrolling through the set list on an iPad. As Beau Speer, the evening’s producer, told me, the acoustics in that room don’t really favor belting. Then the band took a break, reforming a half-hour later in the lounge and leading off with “Man of La Mancha.”

Generally and with a lot of exceptions, Broadway appeals to women and families, a demographic that wouldn’t seem to overlap with the Playboy brand. The magazine’s old cover line made it explicit: Entertainment for Men. A few days earlier I’d asked Nicole Levinson, the vice president of brand management and partnerships, if Playboy’s founder, Hugh Hefner, had been a show-tune enthusiast. “He was not himself a Broadway fan,” she said diplomatically. “He definitely supported performance.”

As Diana Garcia, who was recently hired to program the club, said, “We want people to realize that it’s not about just these men in suits coming in having business meetings. It is about female empowerment.” Is that why Ms. Thomas and Tracy McDowell would later cover “Take Me or Leave Me” from “Rent”?

The funny, awful, sorry-grateful thing about Playboy Live! is that it didn’t seem to be about anything or for anybody — not the couples on dates or the tables of all women or the coed friend groups or the child who was carried out of the dining room in mid-tantrum. (Apparently, you can bring a child to this Playboy Club. Should you? Depends how your child feels about arty bikini photos and olive fed Wagyu nigiri.) Is this the misbehavior Mr. Gwinn suggested?

At dinner, no one applauded the trio, except for the other performers perched down front. One of them, Jen Sanchez, delivered an insinuating version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which sounded at least a little dirty.

In the lounge, a few more tables leaned in. But most guests busied themselves taking selfies or talking to the Bunnies. Relentlessly pleasant, each Bunny wore a custom-tailored corset, bow-tie and heels. Though mostly decorative, a few set down drinks with the patented Bunny dip. Some were tall and some were short. Diversity.

When a birthday was announced, five Bunnies lit sparklers and sang in almost harmony, making the club feel like a pheromone-spiked Señor Frog’s and maybe creating a fire hazard.

In their earlier iteration, the Playboy Clubs were created by and for men, places where little and medium shots could feel like big ones and women could imply sex without having to deliver it. Now women can be members. Ms. Garcia told me that the club wants to welcome the L.G.B.T.Q. community, too. A newer magazine cover line reads: Entertainment for All. So if it isn’t selling men sex, what is Playboy selling? Probably not Ms. McDowell’s bouncy Barry Manilow cover.

The brand has struggled with this for a while. In 2011, “The Playboy Club,” a Hefner-approved drama trading on nostalgia, lasted only three episodes. In 2015, the magazine announced that it would no longer include nude pictures. In 2017, just before Hefner died, nudity came back. The Playboy Club seems part of an obvious effort to rebrand — Ms. Levinson prefers language like “evolve” — Playboy into a more generic luxury property that honors its history but makes its cotton-tailed frisson available to all. (Although if you want to visit the Rabbit Hole, the speakeasy two floors below, you’ll need to pay at least $25,000 in annual membership fees.) Its current vision of empowerment still involves lacing women into those corsets and having them bunny hop — smiling, jiggling — a narrow definition of liberation. If the Playboy Club has an orientation, it is retrosexual.

Late in the evening, the band struck up the bunny hop again and the Bunnies formed ranks. No one joined the dance.



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