Review: ‘The Magic Play’ at Olney Theatre Center

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In the art of magic, Andrew Hinderaker has found a vivid metaphor for the dynamics of honesty, trust and control that underpin our most important relationships. His immensely entertaining and profound new work, The Magic Play, combines a jaw-dropping performance of classic card tricks with a compelling backstory of tender love. The result is breathtaking.

We are mesmerized by the sleight of hand and entranced by the magician’s snare. Trust me, he implores. I will trick you. You will like it and come back for more.

Brett Schneider in The Magic Play. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Brett Schneider, a gifted magician and actor of considerable skill, plays the unnamed illusionist with both steely intelligence and palpable angst. He performs astounding feats on stage but his concentration is interrupted by waves of pain over the departure of his boyfriend, an aspiring Olympic diver. To succeed in his professional life, he must manipulate and control his audience. Yet as he learns from his lover, these same impulses, which deny his partner an equal voice, may doom their relationship.

The Diver is beautifully played by John Hudson Odom, whose physical grace and strength is matched by his generous yet principled emotional embrace. Under the sensitive direction of Halena Kays, we never doubt the authentic attraction between these two uniquely gifted characters, and the emotional risk that both take in responding to one another.

Jon Hudson Odom and Brett Schneider in The Magic Play. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Our magician must also resolve his relationship with Father, a sad-sack prestidigitator who abandoned his son as a child, and now scrapes by with a tired act and birthday gigs. Harry A. Winter captures Father perfectly as the has-been, unrepentant elder. He has lived on the margins of magic for so long that he is no longer capable of separating fact from fiction, and can’t conjure any emotional connection with his son. Their scene together is among the most wrenching of the show.

The other starring role in The Magic Play is played by the audience itself. Hinderaker makes good use of ticket holders in a number of ways, and we believe the theater’s claim that “No actors or stooges are used as volunteers in the show.” We are all ‘wild cards,’ waiting to be randomly plucked from our seats and summoned to the stage by the wily magician. Schneider maneuvers us willingly into his narrative, yet our participation guarantees that no two performances will ever be totally alike.

A host of talented visual artists contribute to the success of this production, working their own magic to transport us between the action and the characters’ reflections. Scenic Designer Lizzie Bracken provides a simple, bright setting for illusionist’s tricks and a dark, yawning space for his psychological depth. She is aided by Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky, who escorts us back and forth between these realities. Projections Designer John “Smooch” Medina ingeniously allows us to follow Schneider’s elegant hands on a magnified screen and provides a gorgeous evocation of the Diver’s realm.

We’re not surprised to learn that Andrew Hinderaker, a long-time fan of magic, views his own role akin to that of a magician. Both the illusionist and the playwright are in the business of crafting experiences and manipulating audiences. Yet, like the magician in his play, Hinderacker is fascinated by what it means to give up a little of that control to both collaborators and the audience, and to achieve greater intimacy by opening his story to the influence of others. He has worked closely with Schneider over the past four years to develop this fascinating drama. Together, they reworked the play substantially after its first rolling premiere in Chicago last year. The result is a taut and tender evening, compellingly staged and full of surprises for everyone in the room.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

The Magic Play plays through May 14, 2017, at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For Tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

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