Amateur Virtuosity

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The New York Times review of the play Elephant Room opens with, "Penn and Teller, meet Wayne and Garth."

Now, I hate to be derivative right at the top of a review but for a play that's . . . well - derivative - maybe it's appropriate.

Elephant Room at the Kirk Douglas Theater is basically a magic show.

The three somewhat hapless performers are in a 'basement rec room of magic' that would look perfectly at home in Wayne's World. The male trio, who perform under the names Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic and Daryl Hannah, have wigs and fake teeth that perfectly match the brown shag rug and teal wood paneling. The conceit, as far as it goes, is that they are members of a secret society of magicians - the Elephant Room Society, Chapter Thirteen, Assembly 1009, from Patterson, New Jersey - to be specific. They are here to blow our minds with magic.

Now the challenge with magic shows is they are really just a series of tricks. Somehow you've got to fill the time between the illusions, between the 'wow moments'. Great magicians, and great theater makers, find a way to make the setup as impressive as the trick.

Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle, who created the play, rely on disguising virtuosity as clumsy, awkward amateurism. It's a device that's almost become a sub-genre of hipster theater. The recipe goes something like this: Present a group of somewhat clueless but likable characters. Create a performance style that's casual, kitschy, and really accessible. Throw in a retro soundtrack and speak directly to the audience while incorporating a knowing wink at the form itself, verging on parody. Hide behind all this a physical virtuosity that, hopefully, ties the whole thing together.

If you caught the Rude Mechs' show, The Method Gun, at the Kirk Douglas last year - you know exactly what I'm talking about. But where The Method Gun added up to something clever and moving, the setup for the "Elephant Room" feels borrowed and like a ... setup. The tricks are strung together with the loosest of transitions.

The magic is fun and at times impressive. It's probably not as astounding as a good night at the Magic Castle but there's a gag with grape Kool Aid, glitter and the Dalai Lama that's a hoot. And behind the prosthetic teeth, this trio are really wonderful clowns.

The trouble is the 75-minute show never really adds up to anything. We don't really learn anything about these three men or what brought them together. Their relationships are more clever costuming than character studies. The Elephant Room Society is just a cool set rather than a mystery whose secrets we get to explore. And while there's talk of the 'nature of illusion', it doesn't gel into a bigger idea.

Which is too bad because the audience was ready to be amazed.

Elephant Room plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through September 16.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening The Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 75 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: (L-R) Dennis Diamond, Louis Magic and Daryl Hanna in Elephant Room. Photo by Craig Schwartz