Magic Time!: ‘Washington Magic’ at the Arts Club of Washington

When I was a kid, magic tricks and puppet shows were forerunners to my love of theater. They were like my gateway drug. I got hooked on the wonder and live storytelling. And to this day I associate theatergoing with “magic time”—what I call that heightened moment of expectancy just before the performance begins when one is open to awe. So of course when I was offered a chance to catch a Washington Magic show, I jumped at it.

And what a jaw-dropping evening of astonishment it was.

Washington Magic, a monthly affair at the tony Arts Club of Washington, showcases 90 minutes of magic, comedy, and mindreading preceded by an open bar and full-course gourmet buffet dinner, all for one prix fix ticket (quite a bargain at $65 or $75, compared with dinner, drinks, and a show just about anywhere else). The setting is upscale but the vibe is fun and friendly fandom. Folks have come to be amazed not put on airs. The dining room, with a platform stage at one end, seats fewer than 80, so the experience is immersive and intimate; the tricks are performed literally right before our eyes.

The production’s impresarios are David Morey and Savino Recine, both accomplished illusionists, and each month they share the stage with a featured guest magician. The night I was there, it was John McLaughlin, who presumably knows a thing or two about deception and misdirection from his former day job as acting director of the CIA.

Savino Recine.

First on the triple bill was Savino Recine, former owner and executive chef of Primi Piatti, where he was known for performing sleight-of-hand tricks tableside for patrons. He likes to “have fun with the impossible,” he said, and he was clearly in his element as he boggled our brains with number games, card tricks, and some uncanny audience-participation stunts. In one, he guessed accurately, while double-blindfolded, which of six different beverages a woman sipped and savored. In another, to illustrate how “people are connected,” he had a father and daughter on stage each stretch out an arm with their eyes closed. He lightly touched the dad on the shoulder and asked the daughter to point to where she might have felt a touch as well. She pointed precisely to where Savino had touched her dad. Twice Savino did this; twice the phantom touch was felt.

John McLaughlin.

Next up was John McLaughlin, who with David Morey coauthored a book about how magic can effectively be applied in the business world. McLaughlin began with a quip quoting himself when he was a boy, “Mama, I want to be a magician when I grow up.” “Son,” his mother said, “you can’t do both.” McLaughlin did some dextrous stuff with silk scarves that changed color and torn paper that was restored and then gave a little spiel about “the oldest trick in magic,” the familiar one with three cups and three balls—except that McLaughlin did it dumbfoundingly as if it had never been done before. As he was doing a number with an egg and scarves he also delivered some great cracks about how the trick illustrated spy specialties like “intelligence ops,” “surveillance,” “angle of vision,” and “sowing confusion.”

It was a kick to see both these guys—one a former cook and one a former spook—having the time of their lives in their encore careers as tricksters.

David Morey.

Headliner David Morey—who calls magic “a hobby out of control”—may be even more all in. A sought-after speaker and strategist who performed at Obama’s official Inauguration Ball, Morey had just flown in that day from a gig in China—but strangely, he joked, the jet lag had enhanced his mind-reading powers. He made six shiny rings link and unlink in an instant. He guessed accurately the serial number on a dollar bill. And then, holding up randomly selected sealed envelopes containing slips of paper on which we each hand-wrote something beforehand, Morey called out audience members’ names and mind-read what they’d said and what they were thinking at that moment.

Inexplicability filled the air like a flight of confetti.

In his narrative patter, Morey mentioned the three classifications of Thomas Jefferson’s library—memory, reason, and imagination. There seemed to be a message up his sleeve, for he also quoted Albert Einstein: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.” And further: “There are only two ways to live our lives. The first is as if nothing is a miracle. And the second is as if everything is a miracle.” Could it be that this Washington Magic show—an utterly entertaining amazement in its own right—was subliminally affirming and reminding us of the ineffable value of suspending disbelief? Well, if so, why not? That’s the magic of theater, after all. And this night had truly been the theater of magic.

David Morey, Savino Recine, and John McLaughlin in ‘Washington Magic.’

Washington Magic performed December 20, 2018, at Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I Street NW, Washington, DC 20006. The next performances will be in the same venue January 24 (already sold out) and February 15, 2018. For information about dates, times, and tickets for future shows, follow Washington Magic on Facebook and Twitter, check its website, or call 888-882-8499 or 202-223-7945.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.