If Magic Goes Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right

May 14, 2020


I’ll bet I’ve sold a dozen tickets to THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG since I first saw it in the West End nearly five years ago. It’s a door-slamming farce, a cousin to NOISES OFF (of which I also can’t get enough), only the premise here is that the cast and crew are British amateurs. As they attempt to stage a stereotypical locked-door murder mystery, Murphy’s Law arrives, flourishes, and rampages for two solid hours. It’s the unluckiest production humanly possible, but the poor beleaguered cast charmingly soldiers on: what else can they do? It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

I’m not the only one smitten. J. J. Abrams loved THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG so much that he helped bring it to Broadway, where it won the Tony for set design; if you see it you’ll understand why. Later, the comic magicians Penn & Teller also had a (separate) look and were just as excited. This was their introduction to “Mischief Theatre,” founded by the three lads who devised the deliberate debacle, and somebody must have said, “hey, guys: MAGIC GOES WRONG! The instant my brother and I heard of it, we snagged our tickets, and at approximately one month B.C. (Before Coronavirus), we settled into London’s Vaudeville Theatre for the collaboration.

The piece presents itself as a televised fundraiser for a charity devoted to magicians who have been injured attempting to perform magic tricks. (The “charity’s” hilarious cartoon logo features a magic wand stuck in the magician’s eye.) Then we are treated to a typical tv variety show during which the magicians turn out to be not nearly as deft as they intended. As we’d hoped, the result is tear-makingly delicious.

Not only is the show heartily entertaining on its face, it also takes sly digs at the cliched tropes of magic. The emcee is “Sophisticato,” who has faced a lifelong struggle for the approbation of his recently deceased conjuror-father (played by a portrait of the late Johnny Thompson, who was a beloved magic consultant). “Mind Mangler” is a delightfully inept mentalist and card handler. Funniest of all is a daredevil “rock & roll magician,” an over-amped cross between Criss Angel and David Blaine, known as “The Blade.” Four other performers keep things moving faster than you have time to ponder, which is, after all, the secret of magic, even when it’s going to go wrong.

I won’t offer any specifics regarding what actually happens. Magic is all about surprise, so that’s for you to discover. (This show is almost certain to make the same trip to America as did THE PLAY, especially with Abrams as a lead producer.) But fans of Penn & Teller’s work will occasionally have an unusual perspective, as a handful of tricks originated in their act, including their hilarious Houdini water torture, a card-finding illusion using a sharp object, and a sawing-a-lady-into-halves routine. P&T devotees will thus be able to discern the lovely handiwork of Mischief Theatre as the “Wrong Boys” (that’s how their American partners refer to them) contribute bits and beats that lift each piece over and above the original presentation — and that’s only the few we’ve seen before. This truly is a match made in prestidigitational heaven.


Sophisticato (Henry Shields) and Mind Mangler (Henry Lewis), about to saw. What could possibly go wrong?


The Puzzling Mr. Kwong

November 13, 2019


David Kwong is in love with both magic and puzzles, and his stage show THE ENIGMATIST combines the two in a thoroughly entertaining way. Besides being a professional magician (his day job), he’s also a professional cruciverbalist, or crossword constructor, so good at it that he’s sold plenty of puzzles to the New York Times, the gold standard of crosswording. 

His show is part magic, part puzzle…but then, isn’t a piece of “magic” really nothing more than an unsolved puzzle? Mr. Kwong’s through-narrative is about coders and code-breakers of history, and as he regales the audience, he also astonishes them with jaw-dropping feats. Among his film credits, he was the head magic consultant on NOW YOU SEE ME; if you’ve caught that movie, you’ll recognize the same kind of cheerful wrong-footing behind these live effects.

Some of them you will see nowhere else. For example, Mr. Kwong illustrates the principles of the crossword form and constructs a puzzle before your very eyes, all in a manner that seems spontaneous but — spoiler alert — isn’t, as we discover in the startling finale. He invites several audience members to pull random Scrabble tiles from a bag and drop them into a cup. Before an overhead Scrabblecam, he sets himself a time of 2:30 in which to use all these letters, then fails, then later reveals that every single move was deliberate. We’re beyond typical stage magic here — this is a good sleight artist and a good Scrabble player. Most importantly, he can really sell “impromptu.”


Part of the beauty of this show is that it slices and dices traditional magic methods into something more meaningful and truly amazing. The old how-did-that-signed-dollar-bill-get-inside-the-kiwi-fruit gag electrifies when it’s joined with another major effect that proves the magician has been totally in control all along.

The audience gathers in a puzzle room at New York’s High Line Hotel before the show to try its hand at four conundrums, which wind up figuring into the show’s climax in a way we couldn’t possibly anticipate. Then into the cozy showroom, where nobody is more than thirty feet away from the artist. That doesn’t mean the closer folks get a better look at Mr. Kwong’s methods, only that he’s able to perform without over-projecting. That intimacy makes you feel you know him after ninety minutes. Many magicians greet their audience after the show; the people I saw reacted to Mr. Kwong as if greeting a friend. 

THE ENIGMATIST runs through January at the High Line, then for six weeks beginning next May at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. After that, who knows? It’s an enigma. But if you ever find yourself anywhere near a David Kwong performance, I’ll be puzzled if you let it slip by.


A locked box holds a big surprise at the end, but you have to be a very good puzzle solver to open it.

I Saw This In Lisbon (It’s Lynchian)

September 7, 2018


My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2017

December 19, 2017


DEAR EVAN HANSEN. A Broadway musical with real dramatic substance. It has a lot to say about adolescent peer pressure, bullying, deceit, and situational ethics — much too heavy for a musical, it would seem — but it preaches redemption from the heart, not the head. Gorgeous songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a star-making turn for Ben Platt in the title role. This show will kill on national tour.


DERREN BROWN: SECRET. The British star of “psychological magic” made his American debut, and did it ever rock. It’s more than just magic; Brown is a performance artist too. For example, he can and does draw a very credible easel portrait upside down, and it’s not the same famous face every night. Brown controls every second of this magnificent piece: as he revealed in the jaw-dropping finale, even when he makes you think he’s improvising, he’s not. A cool, crafty master, but warm, open and delightful in the out-of-character “talkback” after the performance I saw. In a simultaneous piece of magic, after a halftime bladder break I noticed stage-lighting legend Jules Fisher in the milling crowd and sidled up to re-introduce myself, having met him once at the Ricky Jay weekend in Rhinebeck. The always gracious Mr. Fisher and I had a quick two-minute chat and I was bidding him goodbye just as his theatregoing companion walked up after his own restroom visit. It was none other than Stephen frickin Sondheim. I just smiled and nodded; if I had immediately gushed over the maestro too it would have been disrespectful to the now-undoubtedly-amused Jules Fisher. But I’ll happily imagine a post-show cocktail chat: “Hey, Steve, suck it: tonight some fan walked up to ME!” That makes the second offstage wonderment that Ricky conjured for me.


EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE. A new play by Wallace Shawn, who loves to push buttons that subtly unnerve his audience. A group of television executives and performers, part of some society at an unknown diagonal from ours, gather at their favorite bistro for what begins as amusingly vapid chitchat. But the proceedings turn ominous with such ferocity that at first you wonder if you heard that last line correctly. (You did.) The satire is now deadly but darkly funny, an odd fantasia with elements that are disturbingly recognizable in our own culture. I went mainly to see a rare non-drag appearance by my old friend John Epperson, but he and the rest of the fine company gave me much more than I’d expected. I kept thinking about the simple but outre premise for weeks.


GROUNDHOG DAY. Sue me, but it’s great, and just the endorphin jolt we needed in this grueling, debilitating year. Of course this is a musical version of the hit movie; along with the “jukebox musical,” movie adaptations have become a Broadway subgenre as producers relentlessly search for new ways to pre-sell tickets. But the songs are bright and clever and the redemptive emotional heart of the Bill Murray picture is perfectly preserved (Murray stopped by and loved it to the point of tears). We saw Andy Karl — the well-deserved toast of London in the earlier West End engagement of this show — at a preview just before he sustained a minor injury during his athletic performance. (The methods of misdirection are delightful as he starts his day over and over again faster than humanly possible, but he has to work strenuously hard to achieve them.) This is another one that should have a long life on the road: it’s much better than several current long-running hits I could name.


HAMLET. Sam Gold’s intimate production in the snug Anspacher space at the Public Theater just might be the best HAMLET I’ve ever seen. The nine-member cast, led by the riveting Oscar Isaac, did some doubling and tripling — for example, the natural comedian Keegan-Michael Key was a fine Horatio but also performed with the players, receiving an ovation for their overwrought death scene — but its collective energy filled up a sparse, mostly bare-bones setting in casual contemporary dress to eliminate any distractions. The 3:30 running time didn’t feel labored at all. In fact, Gold cut out the Fortinbras character and subplot altogether: that’s how tightly packed this play is. Being so physically close to superb actors interpreting some of the most sublime words ever written for the theatre was an experience I won’t soon forget.


IN AND OF ITSELF. Another magic show that defies description, because “magic show” is far too facile a term for this masterpiece. I saw Derek DelGaudio three years ago in NOTHING TO HIDE, the Neil Patrick Harris-directed two-man show he performed with Helder Guimarães (I’ve never seen better card handling in my life), but this bears little resemblance. It’s a very personal journey, for both performer and audience, that is illuminated by magic in a tiny off-Broadway theater. Deeply considered monologues guide the evening, interspersed with some of the most gaspingly creative illusions I’ve seen. I happened to learn the method for one mind-boggling trick and, as with most great ones, the how’d-he-do-it is tame and prosaic. But DelGaudio’s quiet showmanship is off the scale. The final few seconds left the audience stunned in amazement and unable to move until they could process what they had just seen.


JUNK. The investor culture that invented “junk bonds” in the Eighties, the heyday of Michael Milken and pals, would seem a difficult atmosphere for a play. But Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar keeps the focus on human beings: specifically, those who were responsible for turning “industrialization” into “financialization.” JUNK’s dramatic core is this: is the main purpose of a corporation to serve its customers or its shareholders? This sprawling piece uses individuals to represent trends and presents the stakes so clearly that even we laymen can understand. It’s about nothing less than the soul of business and its vital relationship to the national welfare.


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. My current #1 recommendation for prospective NYC visitors. I caught this in London a few years ago but it was great to see the original West End cast, including the three authors, on Broadway. (Yanks have since replaced them.) The premise is that a company of British amateurs has managed to book a real theater for its old-fashioned locked-door murder mystery, but to their chagrin Murphy’s Law intervenes again and again and again; adorably, there’s nothing else to do but soldier on. The timing and stagecraft necessary to make sure everything goes wrong right, if you get me here, is superb: the show won a Tony for Best Scenic Design and when you see it you’ll understand why. Gut-bustingly funny for two solid hours. If you do get tickets, arrive :15 early, because the pre-show routine is also a scream. EDIT: because of the words of mouths like mine, this show looks likely to not only recoup its investment but also send a bus-and-truck troupe across America. Congrats, mates! EDIT, 1/9/19: New York won’t let it leave! This hilarity moves off-Broadway, as AVENUE Q once did, for what should be a long, happy run. Meanwhile the bus-and-truck company is coming to a theater near you…


THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART. A folk tale with music from the National Theatre of Scotland. It was performed in the “Heath” Scottish-styled pub at the McKittrick Hotel, the inventive venue which also houses the immersive presentation SLEEP NO MORE. The five cast members were all around us at various points, telling and singing a spooky story but with big grins on their faces and mischief in their minds. Included in the ticket price was a flight of Scots whisky to get us in the mood. The charming nature of the staging also made it easy to get to know our tablemates. A great night out, and hurrah for Scotland.


THE WOLVES. I missed Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist last year when it galvanized people in an off-Broadway production by The Playwrights Realm, so it was great to have a chance to catch up with a new staging. What happens is that nine members of a girls’ high-school soccer team — identified only by their uniform numbers — talk to each other while they go through their warmups (a soccer mom appears briefly). But their giddy teenage conversation carries a powerful current of serious subtext that engages the audience organically; you get jostled without even noticing it. The actors are pitch-perfectly plausible; I’ve never been a teenage girl but everybody assures me that’s what they really sound like. Such a simple setup and profound dramatic arc, performed by a true ensemble (most of them vets of the original production). And it’s the author’s first play.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE ANTIPODES (from one of my favorite young playwrights, Annie Baker), JULIUS CAESAR (we were there the night two right-wing trolls interrupted the performance), LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS (John Leguizamo teaches and learns), MEASURE FOR MEASURE (deconstructed by Elevator Repair Service, the brilliant experimental troupe), PRIDE & PREJUDICE (a madcap music-hally romp through Austen, but made with love)

12/20/2017: Add to the notables AT THE ILLUSIONIST’S TABLE at the selfsame Heath of PRUDENCIA HART. There’s a tad too much Derren Brown in Scott Silven’s bravura evening, but he freaks the folks just as powerfully — and here the audience is only two dozen or so, all sharing a lovely dinner and some fine whisky at the earnest Scot’s candlelit table. Wow on all fronts. (OK, now I’m positive I’m done for the year. My 2018 will actually begin with HELLO, DOLLY!)

My Favorite Theatre In:

2018    2019

The Dynamic Duo In Gotham City

July 10, 2015


As Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night, it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.


When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)


I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residency by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.

At the TimesTalk.

At the TimesTalk.

Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master. It’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.


Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora picking away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep thumping that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.

PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.

No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.


Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.


No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture such a thing.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.

And just like that, poof! It was done.


A Congress That Actually Works

August 3, 2014


I had no idea what to expect when I signed up to attend Ricky Jay’s Congress of Wonders, a “weekend of magic appreciation” held last month in the charming village of Rhinebeck, New York. As I discovered when I got there, neither did our host, Ricky Jay. He might be one of the greatest card handlers and sleight-of-hand artists alive, he may have forgotten more about the colorful history of “variety theater” over the past half-millennium than you’ll ever know, he has kept so many secrets that he might as well be working for NSA, but the very first night he admitted to the audience that he was just winging it.


This declaration came in a q&a after a late-Friday screening of DECEPTIVE PRACTICE, the new documentary of which Ricky is the subject. Director Molly Bernstein and producer Alan Edelstein were also there – more on Alan later – and I’d found the film an odd choice to open the “conference,” since most anyone serious enough about Ricky to pony up the registration fee, including your servant, had already seen it. (For the unwashed few, this flick is the ideal answer to the perfectly legitimate question, “Who is Ricky Jay?” So go watch it already.) Me, I was already having a good time, because I was enjoying one of the weekend’s subtexts: it was a means of connecting people who revel in the ornate ephemera championed and exalted by our host. I had earlier shared a short cab ride and a wonderful dinner with perfect strangers who nevertheless had some important things in common, and similar brain-cell hookups continued, at least for me, over the rest of the event. The conveneers I met were every bit as stimulating as the “talent.”

Now, I did hear, and have since read online, some grumbling. I’ve never been to a magicians’ convention, so I don’t know this from experience, but one can easily infer an atmosphere that I personally would go to great lengths to avoid, and the organizers were way ahead of me. Apparently some magicians (based on my own conversations, I’d say the attendees were overwhelmingly civilian, at least 3 to 1 fans and dabblers vs. past or present pros) were disappointed, even irritated, to read the following note from Ricky to “guests who are practitioners of the Mystic Arts” in order to “make it the best possible experience for the non-magician guests”: “Unlike the traditional magic convention, our focus will be on ideas, not tricks. Therefore I respectfully request that you not perform magic for the registrants. Please keep the cards, coins, bodkins and billets in your pockets…thank you for supporting our venerated Art.” Fine by me. But evidently not by all.

As best I understand, the gathering was produced by an outfit better known for “fantasy weekend” master classes with music notables such as Todd Rundgren and Leo Kottke. They must have asked Ricky if he’d be willing to teach a few sleights, and of course he said absolutely no, never ever, what part of this scowl do you not understand? But somebody on either side must have thought, then what would a Ricky Jay weekend really look like? Hence the Congress of Wonders. If I had to describe it to a Hollywood producer, I’d say it was a series of disparate TED Talks, each with a tendril that reached into the art of magic, plus a buncha Ricky Jay. (That’s a description of what was on stage: the connections within the audience were, as we say down South, lagniappe, though this aspect was almost certainly premeditated as well.)

The event was co-hosted by Michael Weber, Ricky’s partner in their “Deceptive Practices” company that provides “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” to movie shoots and other venues where we just need to know how to achieve this effect on this one day, goddammit! For instance, in the (rather forgettable) film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s CONGO, the ape-head worn by an actress was so stuffed with electronics for movement assistance that it couldn’t abide any liquid. How then could this zillion-dollar “mouth” plausibly drain a martini on camera? Ricky and Michael explained the (cobwebby, as we learned) solution, maybe the only method they freely gave up. My favorite statement of the entire weekend was uttered by Michael: “We don’t keep secrets from the audience. We keep secrets for the audience.”

Michael Weber.

Michael Weber.

Michael is a sleight student, like Ricky (in fact, a prodigy, as the Wells Fargo Bank learned one day), and he absorbed a lot from the legendary Charlie Miller, which is how the two connected. I presume you have to be patient to hang with Ricky Jay, because in real life he must grumble a wicked lot. But still, he’s constantly assimilating way-out influences, and to understand more about him, you have to meet some of his friends. Thus this weekend. It was all about creativity, beginning with Michael’s slot on Saturday morning. How to do something impossible? Michael offered three lines of thought that help Deceptive Practices address such a problem: (1) What would we never do?, (2) How might this have been achieved in the past? (e.g., the CONGO gag), and (3) What might be the polar opposite? Yes, these guys know more magic methods (i.e., mind-blowing short-cuts) than we do, but that’s still how they think when they sit down to ponder, as must we all, and to me it was beaucoup profound. Remember, on a big-time movie set nothing is impossible, only cost-prohibitive; you can imagine “unobtanium,” you just can’t afford it.

An Oakes work.

An Oakes work.

What we got later was this cornucopia of creativity, displayed by people from widely varying disciplines. Ryan and Trevor Oakes are identical twins who have developed a way to draw a concave view that more accurately mimics how our eyes actually work. Brilliant, curious, inventive and well-spoken, the boys have also experimented with matchsticks (when placed together with its pals, the tip of each identical matchstick represents a point on an outer sphere, as they demonstrate in a gorgeous and wry piece), pipe cleaners and corrugated cardboard to make the act of perception beautiful and fascinating. Their current show was at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. (I’d never heard of it: it’s on 26th Street, diagonally across Madison Square Park from the Flatiron Building. The following Friday I stopped by to see the show and checked outside, intending to say hi as they continued work on a Flatiron piece, but no Oakeses. I tried, lads!) As with other speakers, the twins hung around all weekend: it was easy to walk up to anyone and chat.

Gary Marcus.

Gary Marcus.

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist and New Yorker writer, is the guy who devoted one intense year to learn how to play the guitar, and he explained his process in the bestseller GUITAR ZERO. His lecture began as a slapdown of fellow NYer scribe Malcolm Gladwell’s provocative thought, expressed in the book OUTLIERS, that roughly ten thousand hours of practice are minimally required for mastery in a given field. At least one audience member wanted to scream, but you didn’t attain mastery, mate! No matter; this guy’s game (if a scoche windy), and a q&a (from a “Mr. Weber”) revealed that serious neuroscientists are now being impersonated by crazies who believe magicians actually have arcane neurological secrets that they’re keeping from the rest of us! The pained expression on Gary’s face said all, just before he properly disassociated himself from such bozos. He’s basically Doug Hofstadter Lite, and I’ll never miss anything else he writes.

Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce.

Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce.

Most of these people were either introduced by Ricky or Michael. I think Ricky must have insisted on the personal perverse pleasure of calling actor Steve Cuiffo to the stage. Steve has developed a body of material based on Lenny Bruce, and he performed about a half hour before the bemused congregants: why the hell are we watching a Lenny Bruce bit? It was the most transgressive, thus courageous, performance of the weekend. Just like Lenny himself. Steve’s impersonation is impeccable, down to the vocal and physical fillips. At least one audience member felt he’d selected bits for this gig that showed off the character at the expense of the funny, but most others were only perplexed. At the conversation afterward with Ricky, Michael, Gary and Steve, the eddies which draw their arts together began to conflate. From the stage, Steve mentioned with fondness the challenge presented by an old friend of mine from Mississippi, John Epperson, who performs as “Lypsinka,” a Joan-Crawfordish drag character who expertly mimes prerecorded tracks, usually from classic movies. John and Steve worked together on THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a replication of a 1973 interview, for which both actors had to synch-in. That night I messaged John to tell him he’d been name-checked from the stage and he was delighted, which I was able to report to Steve the next day, just before he was brought back up to perform a flawless “The Homing Card” manipulation to a “Jack O’Diamonds” track by Bukka White. Whew!

Jesse Dylan.

Jesse Dylan.

Sunday began in the same movie theater where we’d inaugurated the weekend with two episodes of CONVERSATIONS WITH RICKY JAY, a fascinating series featuring Ricky and friends (Tom Waits, Martin Mull, etc.), shooting the shit around a big table at which Ricky will occasionally amaze them with some sleight but usually just grease the conversation. Each ep is called and shot by Jesse Dylan, who came up for a q&a with Michael afterward. At first he seemed reticent, mumbling into his mike. Then began his slide show – he’s a brilliant still photographer, never mind the moving pictures – and he got it out of the way immediately: the first slide showed an adorable little tyke in Woodstock with Bob Dylan, “my dear old dad,” and all of a sudden Jesse was much more grounded and forthcoming. He’s visually gifted but his heart is with the encouragement of creativity in others and its resultant wide-ranging effects. His photographs show the well-adjusted-but-weathered guy inside, talented enough to bring out the best in arty types, frequently progeny with issues – subjects just like Ricky.

Jules Fisher, mensch.

Jules Fisher, mensch.

Then we met Jules Fisher, the guru of theatrical lighting and one of my personal heroes. I’d gone up to him the previous day after a session for which I saw him help solve a lighting problem that shouldn’t have ever happened (see below); without introduction, I realized that has to be Jules Fisher. I told him (“I’m Jules”) that I saw the original Broadway production of HAIR, and after the climax of Act I, in which the players spread a giant sheet over the stage and those cast members who want to take off their clothes and then stand in this soft cinnamon light that makes you wonder for an instant body stockings or buck naked?, at intermission I searched in my program for the name of the lighting designer, that’s how affected I’d been, and there he was. This kind, gentle man listened to some blather very much resembling the preceding sentence, and said thanks as if he’d never heard anything like that before. Talk about knowing how to accept a compliment gracefully!

“I deploy light to help tell stories,” said “Jules” to open his presentation, the most thought-out of the weekend. He reminded us that theater begins with a black void. Now comes his task: what does the audience need to see? Besides countless Broadway spectaculars (and movies that need to depict stage lighting, like CHICAGO), he’s lit all of Ricky’s one-man shows, (the primal connection between the two artists), but he’s also made us able to see legendary rock shows, including the Stones and the iconic Mothership landing which begins Parliament/Funkadelic’s still-storied touring extravaganza. He lit Simon & Garfunkel’s famous Central Park concert, in part by hiring FDNY trucks to hoist lighting rigs up way higher than was “possible.” He constantly reminded us how closely related are the theatrical arts and the Magickal. (In fact, many magic effects depend upon strategic lighting…but I must say no more.) He demonstrated the intensity of a “foot-candle” – the wonderful pre-electric measure which lighting designers still use today, as “horsepower” still serves automakers – by lighting a single candle and letting it describe his face from one foot away. He showed us varying reflections of darkness, on white poster cards resting on an easel with identical black squares, realized with paint, then fabric, and finally with – nothing, as he passed his hand through the square-cut hole in the card set against the black velvet background which had always been there while we in the audience were busy trying to decide which card was blacker. Magic!


Michael Weber then took the stage for his own set and regaled us with a story about his youthful publication of a hack of the “Rifkin Safety Sack” bank bag, and an entertaining phone-number illusion, followed by a bemusing discussion of “bad” magic vs. “good” magic, with Ricky at his side, which mainly consisted of YouTube clips which, sadly, we all could have seen elsewhere. Then off to dinner and one final meeting, featuring Ricky Jay.

For our sendoff session, Ricky sampled his only one-man show that hadn’t made it to New York, RICKY JAY: A ROGUE’S GALLERY. A 108-entry grid on the screen behind him triggered ruminations about magic history, stories from his past, whatever – but the actual numbers were picked randomly from the audience, so the sequence would be different every night, and only certain topics would be heard by any one particular audience. At first the numbers were obviously picked randomly – Ricky has a story for every single slot – but then he playfully “forced” them. “If you were at a 99-cent store, what do you think you might buy?” to a randomly-selected audience member. After the answer, “and what do you think it might cost?” We heard great tales – Ricky’s experience at Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas party only works vocally, but it has a HOWLING finish – and saw stuff we were obviously intended to see, like Steve Martin’s “The Great Flydini” routine, which Ricky helped him realize. Ricky is a natural curmudgeon, but I think he honestly wanted to thank us for attending, so as his finale he performed the latter bits from his famous playing-cards-puncturing-a-watermelon routine, beginning with the giant scissors – which, ever the showman, he’d been packing all along.

Earlier, Michael Weber – probably smarting from complaints by several who’d been expecting to see a weekend of Ricky Jay card tricks – had pointed out that connections were among the main reason to keep it small and immersive, and that we should all plan to stick around after the evening show and connect. Now, he said that the Rhinebeck restaurant where we’d had dinner had opened its back room for us. So the entire audience decamped, some through pouring rain, to Foster’s Coach House, where we continued to have a wonderful time together – by now, we all had new friends, and the commiseration became even more intense here. After about twenty minutes, the servers at Foster’s brought in trays heaped with slices of fresh watermelon for everyone: Ricky’s stage melon and two “understudies,” to be fittingly devoured by the gang. It just so happened that our table was served with a slice that bore two telltale marks of the deadly playing card.

The defiled melon slice.

The defiled melon slice.

A better look at the cowering fruit in a less-bar-roomy setting.

A better look at the cowering fruit in a less-bar-roomy setting.

Clearly, this was an icon that had to be saved, and shown to Ricky, the ole card-hurler himself, who arrived to great applause about five minutes later.

Ricky shows up.

Ricky shows up.

I didn’t ask for it, but eventually the slice got transferred to me for safekeeping (nobody, including me, wanted to eat it – the crowd because it was a new spiritual icon, and me because somebody had THROWN TWO FILTHY PLAYING CARDS THROUGH IT). So I asked the waitress if she could wrap it up or something, she asked why, and I tried to explain. It came back in a Styrofoam clamshell. By then, the crowd had thinned somewhat and Ricky himself plopped down at the next table. I pointed at him and said, this is the guy who threw the cards. She, and Ricky himself, looked dumbfounded. I leaned over: “She thinks I’m crazy.” He may well have agreed. But he must have sussed it all out, because half an hour later, when I got up to leave and didn’t take the Styrofoam, he said, “Don’t forget that melon.” Busted by Ricky Jay! Earlier, Alan Edelstein plopped down at my table. We’d been running into each other all weekend after a serendipitous Saturday lunch. He’s a bright-faced, cheerful (Oscar-nominated!) guy who knows a lot about movies, and I’d like to spend some more time with him. As Alan was checking out the next morning, I passed by once again, and said, “See you at the Oscars!” He replied, “Naw, see you at Sundance!” which is much more likely.

Alan Edelstein.

Alan Edelstein.

You may have perceived that I enjoyed myself, and I did. However, I have some beefs. Whoever devised the A/V for the weekend was so incompetent that they would have been fired from a Kiwanis Club luncheon in rural Iowa. Microphones screeched with feedback. (Poor Jules Fisher was particularly plagued.) Lighting was wrong or nonexistent. Simple calls for video playback were met with two-minute pauses. Nobody had bothered to calculate how many onstage chairs might be needed for the next event. Only when the 108 went up on Sunday night and Ricky was able to call out to somebody named “Coco” was there an instant response. Earlier Saturday, Ricky had just spent valuable oxygen instructing us never to perform unless the environment was correct, but that night he got so thrown by unending poor stagecraft (they moved his table offstage, then had to bring it onstage again and bend it at an angle) that he was unable to perform the simple “Fast and Loose” chain sleight. “Dreamcatcher Events,” I blame you, because it was you who actually accepted our money, so you should have swept up beforehand. The only other explanation – and this could be more deflating – involves Ricky and Michael and a laissez-faire attitude which belies their own careful instruction. See, we all thought they’d be bringing their A game.

However, I have to say that the best part of the weekend was the folks I got to meet informally. (Trevor, Ryan, Steve, Jules, and Alan don’t count.) I can’t name them all because I only got first names. OK, Lance Stokes. But I did get to watch Armando Lucero explain the difference between good magic and bad magic using the example of a sandwich, which he pantomimed gorgeously. I got to watch this at my frickin dinner table the very first night, before Ricky ever appeared. I’d never heard of Armando before, and that first name was all I got at dinner; I looked him up later so I could tell you. Guess you just had to be there. And I hope – not guess, now, but hope – that for Ricky and Michael, whom I still had yet to meet, such moments had been the fine point of it all.

Richard Avedon's startling image of Ricky.

Richard Avedon’s startling image of Ricky.

P.S.: One final bit of magic happened on my way back, when I met a guy on a train.

11/26/18: Alas, Ricky has performed his final vanish.

It’s All In The Cards

July 18, 2012

“Stunt” books are all over the shelves lately – that is, if you can manage to paw your way past all the teen vampires and DIY bondage. When an author decides to undergo some trial or address some goal primarily to write a book about it, the process can be intriguing, as long as the writing’s entertaining and manages to maintain an emotional hook on its schlub audience. THE INNOCENTS ABROAD notwithstanding, George Plimpton’s PAPER LION is probably the true granddaddy of the genre: literary fop, representing Everyman, temporarily joins the Detroit Lions football team. (Let the effete intellectual snob bashing – literal bashing! – begin.) I myself edited a delightful one a few years back, for which MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s Kevin Murphy attempted to see a movie every day for an entire year, traveling all over the world to do it. (Spoiler Alert: he succeeded, but not without some nail-biting close calls, one involving a kidney stone. The resulting A YEAR AT THE MOVIES is tons of fun.) Esquire’s A. J. Jacobs is a modern master of the stunt book. For various projects, he has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible for one year, used himself as a human guinea pig, and bounced back from a case of pneumonia by doing everything he could to strive for bodily perfection. Interesting stuff.

Such books can get under your skin because you’re getting an inside look at a process. Everybody wants to play golf like Tiger Woods, and everybody with a modicum of talent might if they were willing to hit the required hundreds of thousands of golf balls in practice, to basically make that their life’s work and never stop. Stunt books describe extreme behavior, because to get really, really good at something, or to achieve a goal that the rest of us can’t even approach, you’ve got to obsess over it. So there’s that, and it’s the author’s responsibility to entertain all the while; “gee, isn’t this amazingly geeky?” might work for the length of a magazine article, that’s all. The very best stunt books reflect a much brighter facet. They illuminate the relevance of the featured obsession to mundane daily life. As magician Penn Jillette advises the Penn & Teller audience, don’t think about how we do it; think about why we do it.

A terrific book in this regard is MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN, for which author Joshua Foer determines that he will transform himself from a journalist into a world-class memorizer (did you even know there were international memory competitions? I didn’t) and explains, step by step, both how he does it and why. He sets out in layman’s terms the history and science behind short-term and long-term memory and shows us their prodigious consequences on broader health and culture. He uses centuries-old mnemonic devices for mind-boggling feats like committing the order of a deck of cards to memory in seconds. He becomes a true obsessive, yet the rational self sometimes peeks out, as when he – or his girlfriend – stops to regard himself wearing a sound-dampening helmet and sunglasses to ward away outside stimuli while he’s trying to concentrate.

Mr. Foer is consulted, and his methods are employed, in service to a literal, once again, mind-boggling illusion, in a more recent soul-baring effort, FOOLING HOUDINI by Alex Stone – the perfect bookend to MOONWALKING. Unlike Mr. Foer, who first learned about memory champions by covering them for Slate, we join Mr. Stone in medias res, for he is already adept enough at his own obsession, close-up magic, to be a member of the field’s oldest fraternity and a contestant in the World Championships of Magic, known as the “Magic Olympics.” Any book that begins with a triumph and then retraces the steps leading up to it is by now tired to the point of cliché. Fortunately for us, if not for Mr. Stone himself, his 2006 Magic Olympics performance in Stockholm is a disaster: he makes two improper moves and drops coins and cards in a sequence so pathetically amateurish that he is disqualified before he can even complete his routine. His depletion and humiliation are so stark that he actually gives up his lifelong hobby for a while: “I had no business trying to pass myself off as a world-class magician. A world-class hack was more like it. A champion loser.” Act I is over within the first twenty pages.

During his months-long, now-girlfriendless sulk, Mr. Stone is accepted into a Ph.D. program in physics at Columbia University. He gradually drifts back into magic by tentatively attending a local Society of American Magicians meeting and thereby discovering that nobody is there to taunt him, not even those who witnessed his Stockholm meltdown. Convinced that his Magic Olympics routine, even had it been performed perfectly, would still have been derivative and boring, he decides to raise his game, and he takes us along to watch as slowly, inexorably, magic elbows out physics in his increasingly frenzied world.

What he now wants to know can’t be learned from books, not even THE EXPERT AT THE CARD TABLE, the 1902 card-manipulation classic by the pseudonymous “S. W. Erdnase” (E. S. Andrews?) that has never been out of print. Mr. Stone’s first real mentor is Wes James, who studied with the legendary Dai Vernon, the man who fooled Harry Houdini with a trick called the “Ambitious Card” that not only can any modern magician perform, but it’s also a rite of passage to come up with your own individual variation. (James one-ups the author’s smug familiarity with Erdnase by telling him there are fifteen mistakes in the book, three of which only he knows about.) From there, he embarks on an eccentric, eclectic quest to unearth arcane knowledge and become the magician he dreams of being. What makes this book wonderful is that, like Joshua Foer, Mr. Stone places the math, psychology and, yes, physics behind magic in context within the wider world. Turns out you can learn so much more from magic than just magic.

He visits a man named Richard Turner (no less than Dai Vernon said he “does things with cards that nobody else in the world can do”). Richard Turner is perhaps the greatest living card mechanic. Richard Turner is also legally blind. This leads to a discourse on the sense of touch, how it can be amplified, and how Turner’s blindness may even be an asset. When Mr. Stone successfully hides some illegal moves from his friendly Texas Hold-Em group – without cheating them out of any actual money – it scares him a little. Attention to the con game “Three-Card Monte” and its cousin, the “Shell Game,” both of which depend upon sleight-of-hand to fleece suckers, yields insights into persuasion and misdirection. A good monte dealer and a good used-car salesman have lots in common; they both know how to use the “ego hook.”

Mr. Stone wrote a 2008 article in Harper’s revealing some magic secrets and was pilloried for it (even though acts like Penn & Teller dine out on such heresies as performing the venerable “Cups and Balls” routine with transparent cups). This leads to a rumination about secrecy in magic, and how creators break their “code” every day by selling effects and techniques, sometimes through the retail market. (The first magicians who tried to patent a new effect quickly learned that this very process leads to its publication in a form that anyone can consult. That’s why today’s magic effects are not protected by patent or copyright law, and why there’s so much blatant theft in the business.)

Mr. Stone visits mentalists, performers who pretend to read minds but actually use sophisticated psychological (sometimes physical) techniques to support the illusion. He learns how to steal a watch while facing the victim onstage. He takes classes in juggling, dance, yoga, even clowning, to round out his stage persona. And in the meantime we learn about the neuropsychology of multitasking (that’s what magicians force us to do so that we’ll be unable to process information at normal speed – it’s the same effect as talking on a cell phone while driving, which is statistically as dangerous as driving drunk), change blindness (we see what we expect to see, not what’s really there. You probably registered the Ace of Hearts on the book cover up top. You were wrong), and information theory (shuffling doesn’t randomize cards nearly as well as you may think it does).

That last little snippet leads Mr. Stone to his piece de resistance, an astonishing effect that requires nearly everything he’s learned thus far, plus the memory techniques taught him by Mr. Foer. You and I couldn’t do it, because we haven’t spent the required hundreds of hours developing the agility of our fingers, the muscles in our hands, and the ways to retain specific information surely, instantly. Even knowing Mr. Stone’s method doesn’t take away from his accomplishment.

In both these books, we see dozens of little flashes of unconscious rehearsal that permeate everyday life. Mr. Stone always has a deck of cards or a few coins on him; he’s practicing while riding the subway, watching a movie – it never ends. Then one day, renewed and rejuvenated, he flies to San Diego for the International Brotherhood of Magicians Gold Cups, the world’s greatest close-up competition. To find out what happens, read the goddam book. Because Mr. Stone has been doing magic since childhood, we don’t get the “he’s just like me” feeling that Mr. Foer brings; the magician starts with some basic skills that you don’t have. But in both books, the case is soundly made that the stated achievements are well within your power, given the drive, the patience, and most important, the ability to withstand the drudgery of turning it all into second nature. These are both guys who have learned how to do some amazingly cool things. Peeking behind the curtain only makes our applause that much louder.

9/18/12: Here’s a great piece by Mr. Stone from Discover.com on how your “choice” can be forced, one of the deep dark secrets of magic.

7/15/17: You can see the mindblowing Richard Turner for yourself on Season 4, Episode 1 of PENN & TELLER: FOOL US on The CW. After his amazing demonstration, the boys don’t even have to confer: he flat fooled them.

9/20/17: And there’s a feature-length documentary on Richard Turner, DEALT, opening October 20.

Dead, And Live Too

November 21, 2010

This has definitely been the year for unusual theatrical experiences. First there was GATZ, the unexpurgated eight-hour performance of THE GREAT GATSBY, and now I’ve returned from a much shorter but still relentlessly outre production. Like GATZ, it isn’t exactly a play, but whatever it is, it’s a doggone good one. It’s called PLAY DEAD, and I loved it.

It’s inspired by the “midnight spook show,” a bygone midcentury staple in movie theaters across the country. A magician would book the room, dress up his tricks with ghostly patter, and preside until the finale, when a live monster would burst into the audience just as all the lights went out. You went there so your girlfriend could scream and grab on tight. PLAY DEAD is the best “midnight spook show” there could ever be.

The piece is co-written and directed by Teller, the quieter half of Penn &. His co-writer and on-stage performer is Todd Robbins, an old hand at carny feats and other forms of magic. And they have found the perfect dilapidated theater, the Players on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, the same venue where I saw the Fugs live 43 summers ago. This place looks like it was haunted even before the master illusionists moved in.

Teller and Todd Robbins, the creators of PLAY DEAD.

I can’t go into detail about what happens during PLAY DEAD’s 75 minutes without spoiling surprises – and you might well get your chance to see it, because this is a show which could not only settle in for a long run at the 200-plus-seat Players, but it could also travel anywhere the creators can physically mount their stuff. Let’s just say that not only do spooks visit the theater, they visit you personally. Several times during the show, the house goes black, including exit lights. You can’t see your hand before your face. And in the darkness, something touches you. I have no idea how this effect is achieved. In the prerecorded turn-off-your-phones message, Teller instructs us not to stand up during the blackouts; for safety reasons, “eyes are watching you.” There was absolutely no room behind me the first time a ghost connected, and that’s where it felt like it was coming from.

The meat of this one-man (or is he alone, nyaaa-hahaha) show is close contemplation of death, triggered by grisly true tales of horrible killers, told with immense charm and Hitchcockian morbid humor by Mr. Robbins. He enters, illuminated only by the bare-bulb “ghost light” (which, by long theatrical tradition, remains onstage when nobody else is present), in an immaculate white suit. Beyond that I must not stray, except to tell you that the white suit will be slathered with stage blood before we repair homeward. Audience members – the production swears they are not actors or plants, they learn certain secrets spontaneously as I once did – are chosen to do and/or undergo amazing things, and the Grand Guignol magic is first-rate. As another reviewer noted, if Mr. Robbins ever invites you onstage, say yes!

I was in the second row, one seat from the stage-left wall, and I sussed out the method for one small early gag, but I never would have noticed had I not been situated so close and on that particular side. That’s the only one I won. But that was small change. Later, I beheld the most astonishing magical appearance of a human being I’ve ever seen, from barely fifteen feet away in full theatrical light. Again, and as usual, I had no bloody idea. I have my suspicions, but unfortunately they involve discovering another dimension through which to build a trap door, and these mega-grifters aren’t exactly hanging around in Stockholm waiting for the Nobel ceremony in physics. Mixed together with some tiresome carny moves we’ve long learned to reject, the genuine, unexpected one absolutely floored us. So clever. I still have no bloody idea. As Hitchcock boasted about PSYCHO, these people were playing their audience, like an organ.

I’ll also reveal that PLAY DEAD attempts to top the typical spook-show finale, and it succeeds. The show is one-third laughter, one-third heart palpitation and screaming (oh, believe me, you will exclaim out loud), and one-third amazement at some brilliant, jaw-dropping illusions. Johnny Thompson, a veteran “invisible man” who’s worked with most of the greats, gets a credit for “Magic Design,” though I suspect that role was collaborative — but however it arrived, the magic design is in fine form here. I should emphasize that PLAY DEAD is definitely not for children, and the copious blood is only one reason. The language is mild. Hmmm: what else could there be?

There is even a point to it all, beyond the yelps and yucks. One of the fiends which Mr. Robbins brings back from the grave, the monster who earns his deepest ire, is Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), a fraudulent “medium” who preyed on the griefstricken by claiming to put them in touch with deceased loved ones. He demonstrates the effect – “it’s easy!” — with audience members, and it is this heartless charlatan for whom he reserves the word “evil.” Con artists who fleece the gullible, taking cruel advantage of such a vulnerable moment, are beneath PLAY DEAD’s contempt. In a nice, safe theater, where things are “fake and fun,” as Mr. Robbins puts it, phony seances can be exhilarating. But in the world outside, sometimes we forget that such “events,” however craftily simulated, are just as fake: always have been, always will be. Thus does a spook show actually conjure the spirit of Houdini.

PLAY DEAD held its workshop production in Las Vegas, Penn & Teller’s home base, establishing that it’s potentially mobile, as I noted above. But the Players is just perfect. I read that the creators have considered hosting special post-show reveal performances in which the lights don’t go off, to show us how the startling “touch” effects are done. That would be a typical Penn & Teller stunt, but don’t do it, boys. I want my spirits to remain mysterious.

P.S., one month later: However, I did manage to take a photo of Mr. Robbins and an ethereal…um…well…in the lobby afterwards. (Penn & Teller also greet their audience personally after each show, a fine tradition which is kept alive here.) The snap was my very first try with my new smartphone and it’s far too shaky to post here, but if you still want to see it, let me know and I’ll email it to you. (It won’t reveal much that you couldn’t already expect.)

3/5/11: For one performance, there was a “plant,” sort of. New York Times obituary writer Bruce Weber tells about his chance to play dead.

7/24/11: PLAY DEAD’s New York run ended with today’s 7pm show. I can’t imagine that this much creativity and covert intelligence will be denied further audiences at other venues. Watch out!

8/30/11: OK, now that the show’s closed, here’s my shaky photo:

I’ve seen worse smartphone snaps, but this was my first. Todd Robbins (l.) and a covert operative.

4/8/13: I read in Variety today that they’re planning a Los Angeles engagement. Don’t miss it!

I Will Now Make 2500 Words Appear!

May 21, 2010

I love magic. I love the pomp, the artifice, the imagination, the exactitude. The way a guy who’s about to tear a dollar bill in half folds it just so. The barely unnatural bend in the finger joint when he gets set to make a silver dollar disappear. The precision of “randomly stuffing” a hanky into an open fist. And all the while, patter: the secret weapon of all magicians, something to take your mind away from what’s going on before your very eyes: misdirection.

I used to know a great card-finding illusion. I still do. It depends upon a simple, almost laughable, bit of misdirection. One day I made the mistake of performing it a second time for the same group of friends. That’s not magic; that’s chumpdom. Leave them aghast! Two childhood pals, twins, chumped me at age ten when they finally revealed how either of them (hint: but not both!) could go out of a room, across the street, into the next state, whatever, and come back and correctly identify whichever person the rest of the room had agreed to silently choose, every single time! Their secret is equally laughable once you understand the colossal misdirection they’ve suckered you into. But for a couple of weeks, I’d actually considered their patter: they were such close siblings that they could read each other’s minds! Now, I’m all grown up, I’m initially skeptical about every “amazing” claim – but I still love magic!

Resourceful magicians just floor me – whether it’s close-up sleight-of-hand or larger tricks that get the same reaction as a fireworks display. When I lived in Georgia, there was a close-up guy named Tom Mullica (thanks, Nancy!) who owned a magic store in an Atlanta shopping mall. You would sit on barstools and he’d perform sleight-of-hand just inches away from your face. In fairness, he was standing opposite you, so you couldn’t see behind him, which is where I’m sure a lot of top-secret stuff happened. I bought a trick from him that turns a penny into a dime with a wave of my hand. Bet I’ve done it a hundred times. (Profit: $9! Just kidding.)

Promo artwork for Ricky Jay’s masterful show.

In my opinion, the best card handler today is Ricky Jay. I’ve seen two of his one-man shows: RICKY JAY AND HIS 52 ASSISTANTS, completely devoted to card manipulation; and RICKY JAY: ON THE STEM, his tribute to the rich history of hustlers and con men in Manhattan. Both were directed by David Mamet, who has frequently used Jay as a consultant – and actor – in his films dealing with elaborate deception (as have others: for example, Jay helped design a phony wheelchair that made Gary Sinise appear legless in-camera for certain shots in FORREST GUMP). He also has a respectful, even encyclopedic, awareness of the tradition of “variety theatre,” which enjoyed its “golden age” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when magicians regularly headlined popular vaudeville shows and competed amongst themselves to create bigger and more astonishing illusions. Jay employs this literally arcane knowledge in ornate bursts of patter that are almost as entertaining as the tricks themselves. (If you’d like to know more about this era, the single best book is Jim Steinmeyer’s highly entertaining HIDING THE ELEPHANT, in which you will learn how magicians, each building upon the creativity of their predecessors, gradually advanced their art to the point at which they could make an elephant disappear – and you’ll discover how it’s done.)

Hmmm. How it’s done. Mr. Jay would surely despise the oncoming paragraph, but this isn’t his blog, so I get to indulge myself. As ON THE STEM broke for intermission, a young man walked up to me and said he worked for Ricky Jay. Would I mind if Ricky used my wedding ring in an illusion in the second act? It’d be perfectly safe, and I’d get it back unharmed. Duh, sure! “Ricky’s going to ask for a volunteer to loan him a wedding ring. Just raise your hand, and he’ll call on you.” He did, I did, he did (after surveying the other volunteers for a moment to sell the “randomness”), and before long my wedding ring disappeared, then slowly emerged a little later from inside one of those Victorian mechanical flowering-tree contraptions! That “ta-da” moment is called the effect. But Linda and I had some clues, since we were the only ones outside the magic team who knew I was a spontaneously-selected audience plant, the product of what magicians call “pre-show work.” (It occurred to me later that had this been one of those tricks where the magician asks, “Have you and I ever met?” the honest answer would have to be, “No.” I wonder how many times that little exchange has played me for a sucker!) Here’s what I think actually happened in our real, physics-based world, the one in which there’s no such thing as magic (this mundane part is called the method). At the halftime break, the assistant looked around for a man wearing a simple gold wedding band of a certain thickness, a fairly common ring identical to the one which, unknown to us all, was already stuffed inside the mechanical tree. He noticed the perfect candidate on my finger. Bingo. When I handed Ricky Jay my ring, he palmed it expertly (making it “disappear” for the audience and giving them a snicker at my expense as he looked stricken for a second), grandly narrated the flowering tree-machine’s elaborate history, and finally plucked “my ring” from inside it. Once again, his absolutely impenetrable sleight-of-hand skills switched the prop ring with the previously palmed ring (i.e., mine), thus he could hand my real ring back down to me. The trick was simple: it required only two very skillful “close-up” moves, just like Tom Mullica’s. (And the rest of the audience, which didn’t know I’d been hand-picked, couldn’t even piece it together that far.) But the payoff was this beautiful effect which, in truth, had nothing to do with my ring, which had simply been used as misdirection. And though the method – for I’m almost positive I’ve just revealed it to you – might have been slightly translucent for me and me only, it didn’t diminish the magician’s wonder-full, and genuine, powers of manipulation, demonstrated twice. Sleight of hand isn’t something you can simply cover with verbal patter: it’s an art, not a skill, and it’s for real, proficiency requiring as many hundreds of hours of practice as does the violin.

The bad boys of magic, Penn & Teller.

Having a ball with the stuffiness of magic secrecy are my other two favorites, Penn & Teller. I’ve seen them on Broadway a few times, and at their theater at the Rio in Las Vegas. In fact, I see them whenever I can. Their act is mostly magic and other carny stuff (juggling, fire eating), a bit of comedy, but tossed together like a salad. When they get it right, you’re unnerved as if you’re watching a horror movie, then there’s a release as Teller escapes the latest Grand Guignol nemesis, like a row of spring-loaded bear traps, or the sharp spikes above which he’s been hanging upside down, or the water chamber inside which he’s been “holding his breath” longer than humanly possible. Before you applaud, your immediate reaction is relieved laughter.

They work in matching three-piece suits – containing many handy pockets to hide stuff in – and Teller rarely speaks. They love to perform a classic trick in full view: for example, the centuries-old “cups and balls” manipulation, only with transparent cups; or a jazzed-up “body-parts” illusion (that’s how you saw a lady in half) using cutout blocks and triangles, and precise musical cues, once for the effect and a second time, with see-through props, for the method (which is physically strenuous and gets just as big a hand: whew!). In their show THE REFRIGERATOR TOUR, they performed an illusion called “By Buddha, This Duck Is Immortal.” The effect: Penn displays a live duck and stuffs it inside a paper bag. He sets it on a table and a heavy anvil falls on the bag, presumably crushing the duck. He opens the bag, it’s full of feathers, but the duck is gone. I forgot to mention that meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Teller is pushing a shopping cart into a light stand, causing a muffled POP and sparks. Obviously, this is meant to distract us. So the boys repeated the same illusion, at half speed, and told us to watch carefully. The same patter, moves, everything. That anvil was still about to crush that poor duck, only slower. Finally, Penn gave us the method on a third run through. At the precise moment when the light stand started to pop and spark, Penn yelled “HEY!” and showed us a simple switch, one foot into the wings, for a second bag with no duck, just feathers. He and his assistant had practiced the move so well that not only didn’t he break stride, the switch was absolutely invisible, even at half speed. He had to waggle the bag overdramatically to make us notice it! Once again, knowing the very simple secret didn’t detract from our appreciation. On the contrary: we got a look into how hard this stuff is to pull off!

I guess I’m just lucky, but I had a personal experience with Penn & Teller too. I took some friends of mine to see them on Broadway, and at intermission Penn walked the aisles with a large glass wine jug in his hand, the kind that often contains Gallo Hearty Burgundy. It was sealed and empty, except for a folded piece of paper inside. He handed the jug to my friend and told him to hold it, keep it safe, don’t let it out of your sight, and whatever you do, don’t open it. A few minutes later, just into the second act, they brought my friend up with the jug. He’d never before set foot inside a Broadway theater, and now he was on the frickin stage!

I’ll give you the effect first. Penn & Teller select a random verse from the Bible. “Rev. Cecil” (for that’s my friend’s name), having sat on a throne and hugged the jug through the whole randomizing part, reads the verse out loud. He leaves the throne, joins Teller, and hands him the wine jug. Teller smashes the jug on a table with a hammer. On the paper inside the jug, which my friend has been assiduously protecting for half an hour, is written the just-selected random Bible verse!

After the show, my friend was the third most popular person at the theater. (Penn & Teller personally greet their audience outside after every performance.) How’d they do it? What did you see? Teller was standing right next to you! My friend had to say repeatedly, I’m not a plant, Penn just handed me the jug, I don’t know how, I’m innocent! But later, thinking about it back home, we pieced the method together using two clues.

This being Penn & Teller, the prosaic act of randomization was made into an audience-participation spectacle. The scriptural location was determined by children throwing Nerf darts at a big target containing all the books of the Bible. The verse number emerged from the audience passing gigantic fuzzy dice over their heads until they reached the stage. I can’t remember how the chapter number was picked, only that it was a similarly absurd way to sell, this is a frickin random verse! The whole process took maybe 15 giddy, laugh-filled minutes, “Rev. Cecil” presiding over it all. This entire over-the-top production deliberately obscured the fact that what we now suspect to be the actual method was as simple as “By Buddha, This Duck Is Immortal!” But that was just us. As with my Ricky Jay experience, not everybody had the perspective of Rev. Cecil.

My friend remembers that Teller put on safety goggles before smashing the jug, and handed him a pair too (partly obscuring his view). As he raised the hammer to strike, Teller simply said, “Look away,” as would any reasonable person who’s about to send glass shards flying (clue 1). Then, an instant after the jug was shattered, my friend smelled the distinct odor of fresh Magic Marker (clue 2). With Rev. Cecil looking away, and with the audience – the closest of them yards distant – distracted by the loud SMASH, Teller simply switched the paper that had been inside the jug the whole time for a second piece, newly scrawled while Rev. Cecil was on his throne reading the Bible verse out loud, thus giving a covert operative the time to do it. All that theatricality for a trade as low-tech as the one that made the duck disappear! [Spoiler Alert: I think I just revealed the entire history of magic!]

If you had heard the Bible verse aloud, you might have noticed a subtext: most of what you can randomly pick out of the Bible makes no sense out of context. This one was some obscure dietary law (I think), but it might just as easily have been a recitation of cubits or begats. Or, to be fair, a beautiful psalm, maybe a Beatitude — but that would be like hitting the Vegas jackpot, and it’ll happen at random just about as often. Penn & Teller are both atheists and skeptics, reserving their sharpest ire for con artists who dupe poor, gullible people into paying them money for some supposed supernatural feat – and that includes greedy TV evangelists who pray for pay. Ehrich Weiss, better known as “Harry Houdini,” was the most prominent magician to take on such charlatans, debunking mystic after mystic – after all, a magician is the hardest guy to fool – and Penn & Teller follow squarely in his tradition. They even have a TV series on Showtime called BULLSHIT!, attacking “the things we know that just ain’t so.” For example, did you know that there’s no conclusive scientific proof that second-hand smoke is a health hazard? It’s nasty, yes. Ruins a restaurant meal, I’m with you there. It’s great that you can’t smoke in airplanes or New York City restaurants any more. But a danger to your health? Sorry, but that’s just bullshit – and here’s the proof. It’s a terrific series.

Penn & Teller also perform feats of magic which they don’t explain. But they’ve already sent the message: we’re con men, we can do some cool stuff, but we can also fool you into thinking we did some cool stuff that we didn’t. I saw a mentalist once. I have no idea how this guy pretends to read minds, but I was glad to hear him say at the top, “I have no supernatural powers. Everything I do tonight could be done by a 12-year-old, given enough practice.” Penn tells his audience, “Don’t think about how we do it. Think about why we do it.” Because it’s fun, it’s amusing, we’ve all agreed to call it “magic” – but never ever forget that in the real world, after the stage lights go down, the term requires those quote marks.

4/3/13: Two days from now, Penn & Teller will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

11/30/13: A wonderful new documentary on Ricky Jay and his many influences, DECEPTIVE PRACTICE, has just been released on DVD. Highly recommended.

6/10/14: I can hardly believe it, but by a massive stroke of good luck I’ve snagged a berth at the upcoming Ricky Jay’s Congress Of Wonders, and unless the weekend totally sucks, you’ll be directed to my report here.

4/11/15: Another brilliant bit of Penn & Teller chicanery that I’ve told people about over the years but will show you now. At Forest Lawn Cemetery in L.A. there is a “cenotaph” that buttons the best effect ever — but you have to invent the setup. It shouldn’t be too tough: all you have to do is force the magicienne (mostly, in my experience; I learned how to juggle too) to select the Three of Clubs. Even get it wrong a couple of times, claim that if you were on Pacific Time you could do it better — you see where I’m going here. Finally, stroll with the young lovely through this fascinating Hollywood memorial until you casually come to this. “Wait a moment, mon cherie….
Yes, that was only a fantasy, but Penn & Teller devoutly hope you will similarly play with this socko effect even after they have both passed away. Even better! As Lawrence Welk used to say, “Thank you, boys!”

7/10/15: A fond wish came true when Penn & Teller returned to New York for a six-week summer engagement. Here’s my tribute.

5/4/17: If you love magic as I do, dig this piece on Derek DelGaudio as he works up his new show IN & OF ITSELF. I saw the show two weeks ago, and this piece does not over-elevate it. It’s more than magic. It’s philosophy, emotion, art.

11/26/18: Sadly, Ricky Jay has performed his final vanish.

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