In a world where CGI special effects are ubiquitous, we've become desensitized to seeing the impossible on-screen. Being in the same room where "the impossible" happens, however, is something else altogether. The Magic Play, making its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, is a tender and engrossing play that delivers just that.
While The Magic Play does involve many mesmerizing tricks, courtesy of star and magic consultant Brett Schneider, it is no mere spectacle. Andrew Hinderaker's script deftly interfolds scenes of a troubled relationship into the Magician's routine, creating a memory play that is introspective and deeply human.
In his personal life, the Magician is as meticulous and exacting as he is onstage. Every moment is controlled, every outcome planned, much to the exasperation of the Magician's lover, known only as the Diver (the charming and magnetic Sean Parris). The Diver is also disciplined — he's working toward a shot at the Olympics — but he is daunted by the Magician's total commitment to performance. How can you really trust a master illusionist?
Whenever the Diver comes close to seeing the man behind the act, the Magician falls back on the tricks of his trade — deflection, misdirection, and engaging patter. His act works only for so long, of course, and soon the two men are left with broken hearts. In an attempt to make sense of his life, the Magician goes to the source of his deepest insecurities and seeks out his father (a reliably strong performance from Francis Guinan), a Reno magician who disappeared when his son was a little boy.
While the Magician's act is well-honed art, his father's show is simply artificial. Cajoling the crowd in a perfectly tasteless tuxedo (a nice touch by costume designer Alison Siple), the Father is unmistakably a hack. He does love the work, though, and when father and son trade tricks on keeping their hands limber, it's as if they're playing catch.
Whether confronting his absentee father or performing elaborate card tricks with balletic lightness, Schneider's performance is bare and intimate. It is difficult to imagine anybody else in the role. His chemistry with Parris is through the roof, though the script never fully shows its hand. We see only snippets of their courtship and their conflict. The Magician rarely relinquishes control, even of his memories.
Director Helena Kays' brisk, inventive staging is full of clever transitions that echo the sleight-of-hand tricks that the Magician has mastered. The chintzy curtains of the Father's casino-basement magic show become an aerial view of the Diver's swim meet, in a particularly lovely moment from Lizzie Bracken's set and Maggie Fullilove-Nugent's lighting design.
The magic itself, designed by Jim Steinmeyer, is aided in its presentation by a close-up live-feed of Schneider's table. The projection blends seamlessly in and out of the action, an excellent technical success from projection designer John Boesche. While it might be unforgivably clichéd to say, The Magic Play is truly a magical night at the theater.
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