Real Estate

Actors Take Over the ‘Pink House’ in the West Village

Jean Marie McKee, founding member of Naked Angels, plays the host of a masquerade party in the film.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

One winter evening on Bank Street, Mark O’Brien stood on the roof of a pink, four-story rowhouse with a welding tool in hand. The 61-year-old, strapped into a harness, began rappelling down the façade. He stopped at a top-floor window to flash its metal frame, but the woman dancing alone in the room didn’t stop to investigate the explosion of sparks. He passed another floor, where a man in a Victorian stovepipe hat looked out of a candelabra-lit room but didn’t say a word. When he finally reached the first floor, where a couple dozen people were gawking, PeterPaul Shaker, a 42-year-old attorney, was relieved. O’Brien was fine, but, perhaps more importantly, no one had called the cops. They would’ve had to reshoot the scene.

The crowd that had stopped to watch the stunt was curious: Who was the silver-haired man flying down the front of the house, and who were these people with video cameras, making such a spectacle on the quiet West Village street? “The Naked Angels,” Shaker told them.

The Naked Angels filming at the pink rowhouse on Bank Street, which has always drawn attention for its color.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

The local theater group of roughly 300 members is a West Village institution that has nurtured actors like Marisa Tomei, Matthew Broderick, and Sarah Jessica Parker since 1986 — it was co-founded by Parker’s playwright brother, Pippin Parker. Still, of the actors on the set, O’Brien might have the most familiar face — but not for his acting. He’s built a sizable Instagram following as a real-estate developer who buys and restores townhouses through his company, Build Me a Brownstone. His 300,000 followers can watch him smash through ceilings, pry off old floorboards, and reseal windows as he narrates what a high-end renovation looks like.

“I wouldn’t try this at home,” he advises in one Reel, before hammering a wall of black-and-white marble tile into shards. “It’s a little bit of anger management and a little bit of restoration.” It probably helps that he looks like a rugged version of Richard Gere. While some followers ask for advice on how to restore old windows, others wonder out loud about the diet (spinach smoothies) and skin-care routine (daily handstands for blood flow to the head) of the man who regales them with stories of his real-estate bets and deals around the city.

O’Brien bought the “Pink House,” as he calls the Bank Street home, for $5.5 million last winter from two NYU professors who had decided that at the first whiff of a potential Trump reelection, they’d pack up and move to Canada. Now he’s preparing to spend the next couple years — and a few million dollars — renovating the place for resale.

Usually, he doesn’t live in the houses he renovates. As he says, “There are rats and holes in the roof with water pouring in. And spiders.” The Pink House didn’t have any of those. What it did have, he says, was “a vibe.” The 1839 Greek Revival house was actually in pretty good shape; the professors had preserved the original pine floors and molding, as well as all six wood-burning fireplaces. O’Brien plans to maintain these historic features, but he also wants to do a full-scale expansion — and that takes at least a couple of years. But he is currently in permit purgatory, waiting for the city to approve his renovation plans.

Mark O’Brien preparing for his scene as a woodworker — a role perfectly suited to him, as he regularly uses tools in his job as a builder and developer.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

So he moved in — putting a bed in the rose-colored parlor room, lining up stacks of firewood along the walls, and filling the shelves with Grateful Dead records. He also started hosting parties there every weekend. Most of the time, the guests are his friends from the Naked Angels. It was at a Christmas party, in fact, where the idea to shoot a short film at the house was born.

Shaker, the lawyer who also moonlights as a screenwriter, remembers sitting on the stoop with O’Brien and another Naked Angels member at three in the morning when a young woman named Amy Ellis stopped to ask about the house. They offered her a glass of wine and invited her in for a tour.

“You guys aren’t going to kill me, right?” she had joked. The 22-year-old came inside to look around. But she ended up tripping on the main stairs and breaking the heel of her shoe.

O’Brien immediately worried about getting sued — “I didn’t even have homeowner’s insurance,” he recalls. But Shaker thought, “This would be great in a short film.” (In the meantime, Ellis had popped back up and yelled, “I’m okay!”) Shaker went home and typed up a 36-page script he titled The Pink House, and asked O’Brien if he could use the house as a film set. O’Brien said yes right away.

The film’s opening scene comes from that winter night: a “very Alice in Wonderland” tale, Shaker says, of a young woman who wanders into an old house and enters an alternate universe with a cast of carnivalesque characters, including a showman, a fortune teller, and a burlesque dancer. Filming The Pink House would consume the rest of their winter and spill over into spring.

O’Brien intends to renovate the entire house, and he let the actors do virtually whatever they wanted to each room. Actor Zoe Stuckless painted a mural of a hanging-man tarot card in a bedroom, which would become the backdrop to a rave scene for their film.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

With its empty bedrooms, strobe lights, and murals, the top floor of the Pink House looks like a college party house — perhaps the opposite of what the previous owners, NYU professors, had in mind.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

It’s not every day that a roving group of actors gets creative license over a $5.5 million townhouse. “You hear of some actors going to an old barn upstate to shoot, say, a horror film,” says longtime Naked Angels member Audrey Rapoport, who is an acting instructor by day. “But it’s unusual for it to happen in the middle of the West Village.”

No room is off-limits, but O’Brien says he set some ground rules — for example, no one (besides himself) can go on the roof — but he says Shaker “ignored them all.” Shaker, whose friendship with O’Brien mostly takes the form of rapid-fire banter, doesn’t remember any ground rules. It was easier to believe O’Brien at first, but then I watched him ad-libbing a backyard scene, repeatedly dumping oil over a grill fire so it grew bigger. Shaker urged him to tone it down. “Always more flames!” O’Brien had shouted back. Within minutes, the entire garden was cloaked in dense smoke, and Shaker had to stop filming and wait for it to clear up before starting the shoot again. It’s possible that the ground rules, if any, were loose.

Over the course of two seasons, the Naked Angels transformed the four-bedroom house once owned by professors into one that looks like it’s owned by, well, college students. Ron Brice, an actor in the film, draped the walls of one bedroom with handmade vermillion curtains to create the illusion of a psychic’s parlor, while Zoe Stuckless, the film’s lead, painted a mural of a hanging-man tarot card in the dance-party room. In the top-floor bedroom, the Naked Angels installed strobe lights and painted murals of stars and peace signs in preparation for a rave scene. For a masquerade party, they installed Moroccan ceiling lamps and ornate candelabras in the parlor room (where O’Brien still sleeps at night). In another bedroom, they hung up glittery wall coverings and draped a four-poster bed in red tulle and black satin for a burlesque scene. Everyone brought in furnishings and props for the weekend shoots, from Victorian lamps to hand-painted Venetian masks. You’d have to look carefully for clues — like a comb or a razor by the sink — to determine that someone does, indeed, live here.

For a burlesque scene in an upstairs bedroom, the Naked Angels hung up glittery wall coverings and draped a four-poster bed in red tulle and black satin.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

PeterPaul Shaker, sporting a fur coat for his directorial cameo, in the garden with the four lead actors (from left to right): Zoe Stuckless, Ron Brice, Audrey Rapoport, and Thomas Dougherty.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

For many of the Naked Angels, the Pink House is much more than a set; it’s a reminder of the days when the city was more of a playground for artists. Founding member Jean Marie McKee remembers the early years of the troupe, when crime was high and rent was low, so “actors were able to live and put on productions for cheap,” she says. The Angels even had a playhouse of their own on 17th Street. But it’s been decades since producing a play or a film has been affordable, and they became a nomadic troupe in the 1990s, meeting at local theaters and community centers for their weekly Tuesday night cold-reading sessions. People continue to join the group, and there are teenage members alongside those in their 80s, all in pursuit of the same dream: of making it in New York as an actor. But most have to squeeze that in on the side while working other gigs like bartending and house painting.

The Naked Angels know the Pink House won’t be theirs forever. They’re just relishing the fact that they have nearly free rein over it. “Knowing the owner and knowing he’s gonna be gutting it and restoring it gave us the ability to do whatever we wanted,” says Shaker. “Having that freedom allows you to play even more.”

They welcome anyone, Naked Angel or not, who wants to participate. The cast also includes local band Victor Jones Is a Construct, a dance troupe, and even Amy Ellis, the woman whose poor 3 a.m. judgment inspired the project. (She’s not the only stray lured into the Pink House — one sunny day when lots of extras canceled, Shaker marched outside and persuaded a few unsuspecting West Villagers from the street to take their place.)

The house, built in 1839, is often jam-packed, as people are constantly going up and down the stairs with props and equipment. O’Brien’s renovation plans include opening up the floor plan.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

The parlor room is where the film’s masquerade-party scene takes place — but it’s also where O’Brien sleeps. His bed can be seen behind the band.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

Even the scene of O’Brien rappelling down the façade was a hair away from being a do-it-yourself operation. He’d planned to just tie a rope around the chimney and scale down the house without a stunt coordinator. Shaker — again, an attorney — shot that idea down.

For O’Brien, acting is another outlet for risk-taking. Unlike the other Naked Angels, who audition for indie films and Off Broadway plays, he began his acting career with anxiety-inducing gigs like a Harley-Davidson commercial and an underwear ad, because “I just love the challenge of doing things that scare me,” he says. He was immediately welcomed by the Naked Angels when he joined the group in 2017, and has been goading on Shaker and the others ever since.

At one point, I asked O’Brien if he had always known he would venture into acting.

“No,” he laughed. “I threw spitballs at the theater kids in high school.”

Members of the Naked Angels relaxing on the garden floor.
Photo: Mark Grochowski

Outside of the film shoots, the weekend parties that O’Brien hosts at the Pink House have become long, sprawling nights that mimic the mood of the film. He encourages anyone who wanders in to go to the garden floor and pour themselves a drink. It reminds McKee of the days when the Naked Angels group was nicknamed “The Party Theater Company,” the ’80s and ’90s art world “when people would have a show in their loft and invite everyone.” One night, Victor Jones Is a Construct performed for guests in a bedroom. On another, four actors broke off to play a vodka-charged game of hide-and-seek (the winner hid in what some have taken to calling the “murder basement”). And then there was the time when a group of actors was passing around a blunt and Shaker accidentally dropped it in a crack in the floorboards. (“He’s a rogue lawyer,” O’Brien once said about Shaker.) Someone quickly poured the rest of their beer into the crack. No one seemed to worry about causing a little damage in the house that would soon be a construction zone.

I listened to Rapoport reminiscing about her days of doing improv theater with Lisa Kudrow — “I knew her back when she had short, dark hair.” Crew members in their 20s and 30s talked about their cultural touchpoint: trying to watch a bootlegged version of Hamilton on Pornhub under the title “REVOLUTIONARY TWINKS HAVE HISTORICAL FUN.” Thomas Dougherty, a 27-year-old and a relatively new member of the Angels, loves it. “How many parties do you go to where you have both 23-year-olds and 83-year-olds?”

During the film’s wrap party, I was sitting in the garden with some actors when a young woman, a Turkish fashion designer who hopes to host a show at the house, tripped and fell into the fountain.

“Now you have to let her host the fashion show,” someone said to O’Brien.

“Why? I didn’t push her in,” he said.

The film is now in edits, and O’Brien is still waiting for the city to approve his renovation blueprints. He wants to convert the basement into a spa and expand the first floor to make room for a library and den. (He won’t fix the creaky 100-year-old floors, though, because “it’s history.”) After that, he will probably sell the house for $12 million, and the buyer will most likely fit the profile of a person who is able to afford a West Village townhouse, someone who will put Brooklinen sheets on all the beds and and host tasteful, catered dinner parties.

But until then, the Naked Angels remain.

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