The Magic Play has a lot more going for it than its utilitarian name. For one thing,it has a slim cast of three talented and established actors, one of whom (Brett Schneider) also happens to be doubly gifted as both an accomplished actor and a phenomenal magician, a man whose slight of hand work is so deft that even a camera zoomed in to within a foot of the action reveals nothing but the sleek beauty of a well-executed illusion. What makes The Magic Play so magical however is not how easily we are amazed by the magician’s tricks, but how readily we are drawn in to the human drama built around his personal foibles. Written byAndrew Hinderaker and directed by Halena Kays, The Magic Play will run at Goodman Theatre through November 20.
The curtain opens on a man, a card table and a deck of cards. He soon draws us in to his trick with seemingly genuine patter, a sympathetic mash-up of storytelling and interactivity that he himself later reveals to be a simple ploy used to create trust between himself and the audience. His love interest, the charming and buff Diver (played by the charismatic Sean Parris), soon corroborates this ploy, revealing over the next few scenes how he too was taken in by the magnetism of the Magician until he realized just how much of their relationship was pre-scripted. In a way, even the Diver himself is buried beneath several layers of script—as a scripted character in the play yes, but also as a figment of the Magician’s biased memory and imagination—as it is revealed that the actual love interest has left town. The Diver appears then as a series of often spectral flashbacks, slowly opening up the plot to us, and cracking open the veneer of the Magician’s character. In spite of this, the Diver seems like the most real character on stage, perhaps because he was once an audience member (that is how they met) and we identify with him, or maybe it is because he too has a story arc (albeit largely neglected) based around his desire to qualify for the Olympics.
Throughout the play, mind-blowing card-trick magic continues as volunteers are drawn in to the drama. While still onstage, the Magician begins to unravel, revealing trade secrets, and becoming confused and distracted by his emotions. We learn of his negligent father, a clue the Diver thinks explains the Magician’s unwillingness to open up to a relationship. Of course, the Diver encourages the Magician to reconcile with his father, in hopes that it will help their relationship. The Father, played by Steppenwolf veteran Francis Guinan, a down-market magician himself, is soon revealed as a man who took off after turning his young son on to magic. Guinan is spot on in his rendition of a self-absorbed, callous yet somehow frail dad who would have tried harder if he knew how.
Of course, no amount of skill in magic can repair real-life relationships, and the reality of this is what seems to torment the Magician as he navigates his heartbreak on the stage with us. The culmination is a belated moment of true, intimate physical connection for the protagonist and his ex. Though the story ends there, the show must go on, and the Magician takes us through until the end as a sort of penance to himself, performing an interactive, astounding magic trick involving the whole audience that will differ and amaze anew each evening.
Tickets to The Magic Play for $10-40 are available here. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. Goodman Theatre is located at 170 N. Dearborn.