The Magic of Less

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

It's tempting to think that magic is about the trick. Whether it's pulling a quarter out of your ear or a bunny out of a hat, it's easy to think it's about the quarter or the bunny. But it you ever had a favorite uncle or granddad produce that coin, you know it's really about the relationship. It's not the trick that's special, it's the person. It's that wondrous belief that they have a special powers. It's the currency of magicians, cult leaders, and . . .frankly actors. The success of magic depends as much on how badly you want to believe in it as it does on the virtuosity of the performer. If you really think grandpa has magical powers he can be pretty clumsy with that coin.

The latest show in the Geffen's small theater, Play Dead is basically a cross between a magic show, a séance, and an old school haunted house. It's the concoction of Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, who co-wrote and directed, and Todd Robbins who serves as our magician and the other half of the writing team.

The conceit for the show is that Mr. Robbins, decked out in a white suit with a blood red shirt and tie, is going to conjure evil. He wants to bring back the dead. To perform, as he says, "an unholy resurrection." Like any good con man, he asks our permission and elicits an audience response of "hallelujah" and an "amen" for blasphemous good measure.

I feel like I need to issue a spoiler alert - don't worry I'm not going to give away any tricks - but I may just spoil the show by dissecting it a bit. Okay, you were warned.

So as Mr. Robbins is inviting us into the world of the show you can feel the somewhat transparent mechanics of the con: the warning that this could be scary; a deadline in the form of an hour glass: we're told we have until the sand runs out to escape the theater; the call and response to make sure we're ready. Then he walks over to the 'ghost light' on stage - you know, the bare bulb that's left burning in an empty theater - and he turns it off. The theater's dark but there's still the glow of aisle lights and two exit signs. Mr. Robbins walks to the edge of the stage and flips a switch to blanket the theater in darkness: totally black. It's jarring.

Frankly, it's the most inspired and mysterious part of the whole evening. It's inspired because as we all know too well - what we imagine is so much more frightening than what's actually there. In the dark, anything could be happening. It's our minds that are doing all the work. It's the perfect example of less being more.

What's mysterious is that the rest of the show doesn't seem to appreciate this.

Everything else feels a bit over the top. From the set design that includes a few too many ideas to Mr. Robbins who's just a little too solicitous to the show's continual emphasis on evil. For me, I found it a bit too much - not because it was too scary but because it was so busy telling me it was scary. There's a cliché note you'll hear in acting classes: "Show me don't tell me."

But if magic's your thing and you missed the haunted houses at Halloween, it's a fun 80 minutes. Just remember, it's up to you to believe.

Play Dead plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through December 22.

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

Run time: 80 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: Todd Robbins plays with a Ouija board in Play Dead. Photo: Michael Lamont