Pret-a-Reporter

Elephant Room: Theatre Review

Craig Schwartz
A trio of misfit magicians caught in a self-conscious time warp present an overly knowing contemporary take on comedy and magic; highly referential and rarely going over. 

Is it a performance art piece in the guise of a magic show – or the reverse? Either way, this retro-riffing staging is interested in trickery.

Three haplessly uncool magicians – played by show creators Trey Lyford, Geoff Sobelle and Steve Cuiffo ­– inform the audience that we are all present, set notwithstanding, at their actual secret “clubhouse” somewhere in Paterson, New Jersey. All of them, under the stage names Louie Magic, Daryl Hannah and Dennis Diamond, are coiffed and clothed as refugees from among the worst fashion nightmares of the 1970s. They embark on a 90-minute performance art piece in the guise of a magic show. Or is it the other way around? Or does the confusion, or ambiguity, make any difference?

As one of them says, revealingly quoting the father of modern magic, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, "all magicians are actors playing the role of a magician.” Their show leads off with acute reflexiveness, which never rises to the level of genuine irony, instead reeking of a sensibility that plays to an attitude of hipness that relishes being superior to the retro while simultaneously reveling in its trappings. It is all attitude, a conscious avoidance of substance as suspect.

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Yet the show strikes this viewer as irredeemably square. The much-vaunted "New Vaudeville" of the last 30 years -- which reinterprets venerable variety tropes with a conspicuously self-referential knowingness meant to make the corny acceptably relevant to contemporary audiences conditioned to be dismissive of direct emotion -- has hair on it (bad hair, in this case, times three) and seems far creakier than the original acts do. The zaniness is studied, and glacial rather than antic, making memories of the Three Stooges or the Ritz Brothers fond by comparison. The frozen Seventies stereotypes of the magicians’ personas may be meant to be kidded with affection, but these targets are so stale that satire is unimaginable. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the artists, but at this point postmodern is way past cliché.

Magic essentially boils down to endless variations of a half-dozen basic tricks, so context, concept, style and performance are paramount. The magic chops on display are pretty decent, and an occasional flourish such as an early, throwaway levitation is impressive, but the boys’ rhythm flags way too often for an act intended to be break-neck. As a longtime-ago journeyman magician myself, working the very same region, I genuinely relished the name-checking of now-obscure greats (and shared personal heroes) such as Harry Blackstone, Harry Keller or Howard Thurston, and appreciated the trio’s efforts to include many classic routines in different guises, though regrettably, aside perhaps from a routine involving a late-night call from the Dalai Lama, few could be considered fresh. And as the script acknowledges, there is a lot of original, inventive work going on throughout the field.

Two of the creators previously fashioned the inexplicably acclaimed, all-lowercase production of “all wear bowlers,” which was imported to the Kirk Douglas in 2006 and led to Center Theatre Group’s development of this piece, which opened in New York before being presented here now. Perhaps their vision simply isn’t meant for me.

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre (through Sept. 16)

Creators and Cast: Trey Lyford, Geoff Sobelle and Steve Cuiffo

Director: Paul Lazar

Set Design: Mimi Lien

Lighting Design: Christopher Kuhl

Costume Design: Christal Weatherly

Sound Design: Kick Kourtides

Choreography: David Neumann

Presented by Center Theatre Group 

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