On Wednesday, I saw The Magic Play at Olney Theatre Center. Written by Andrew Hinderaker, directed by Halena Kays, and with magic created by Brett Schneider, it was truly a *magical* play.
I texted my friend Katie, who works at Olney, on Wednesday, trying to decide when I was going to come see this show, and I (somewhat jokingly) said that I was free that night. She said, “great, let’s do tonight!”
So at 5:30pm I was on the metro out to *the farmland* as I like to call it. I rode it to the end of the red line. Then, she picked me up and we drove another 20 minutes into Maryland. And I’m going to be honest, I thought I was going to see a magic show, and I was stoked about it. Katie informed me that, no, Olney was not just putting on a magic show. It was a play with a plot, with character development, and also with magic. I was intrigued, and so unprepared for this powerful, revelatory play.
At its heart, this is a (very impressive) magic show intertwined with the story of the magician’s own failed relationship. It begins with the Magician (Brett Schneider) performing a real magic show with card tricks galore. Through flashbacks, the audience learns that this magic show is happening on the same day that his boyfriend left him. And the “play” part of The Magic Play begins.
It’s not a simple thing to talk about the plot of the show because it’s winding, it doubles back, it rewrites itself with each new truth revealed, with each trick played for the audience. I read the dramaturg’s note before the show and thought, “well that was vague.” But as the show progressed, I saw that this show can only be described in such vague, poetic language because it touches something indescribable. Ok, but let me try.
The play equates a magic show with a relationship. A magician, in his work, manipulates outcomes, manipulates emotions; is thorough, meticulous, and only gives the *appearance* of magic. Essentially, he lies for a living, but convinces people (the audience) he’s telling the truth. In a relationship, this is like a nuclear bomb, as we see. The Diver (played by Jon Hudson Odom), the Magician’s love, feels that he can’t trust the Magician. The Magician manipulates reality around the Diver in order to produce the desired magical effect, love. At one point, the Magician says that there’s no real magic for him because he’s the one creating it, not experiencing the joy and wonder that his intended audience feels. He longs for that though.
Honestly, that didn’t do the play justice whatsoever. Let me try again.
I walked into the theater and saw the set, designed by Lizzie Bracken. On one side of the stage, a house of cards; on the other, a table with a few miscellaneous items, and in the center, another table. Two chairs are on stage. There was a scrim behind this, gorgeously painted a smoky, cloudy purple, with simple, elegant designs on the outside in lines and dots. At the beginning of The Magic Play and the magic show, the stage is flooded with lights of all colors (lighting designed by Jesse Belsky). When the Magician entered and began his magic, the cards were projected on the scrim through a live feed. The Magician was dressed in a slightly too big, dim cerulean, three-piece suit and deep aubergine shoes (costumes designed by Alison Siple). During the magic show, eery and foreboding music (designed by Matthew M. Nelson) pervaded until the magic miraculously concluded, the music swelled, and the card disappeared or reappeared or changed. When Daniel, the Diver, a figment of the Magician’s imagination, appeared to interrupt the magic show, the lights, the sound, and the set shifted. When they were engulfed in a flashback, that memory changed all the technical aspects again, revealing a diving board behind the scrim. It was fluid, like diving into a pool, how the audience was taken to a magic show, to the Magician’s mind, to a memory of a natatorium at night. It was as if the magic of the plot and the journey of the Magician performed magic on the technical aspects of the show and vice versa.
And that was first act. The reason it’s difficult to discuss the plot specifically is because I don’t want to give away any of the magic. Besides the fact that it would be pointless to try to describe magic, the magic show follows the course of the relationship, each piece of magic is a touchstone with significance for the pair.
Let me talk about the acting for a moment, and by extension, the magic. There was an absolute dynamism between Schneider as the Magician and Odom as the Diver. There was tension, like a bungee cord connected to each of their hearts, and it was taut and strained, until it snapped. When I saw their relationship, I saw reality. (Which is, of course, the point, but also ironic given that this whole play is about the fact that the magic we see in a show isn’t necessarily real. It’s designed to manipulate the reactions of the audience. It was beautiful. I love theatre.)
The second act features Harry A. Winter as the Magician’s father, who left him as a kid, also a magician, working the casino circuit in Reno. Honestly, I can’t tell you how the acting was in the scene because I never saw it. I saw a father and son trying to reconcile after years of not talking, after the father not even recognizing the son. It was that good.
Alright, you might think I’ve gone off the rails here with my ebullient praise of a show that I can’t even properly explain. But I think that’s the point. This show made me feel, viscerally, the the love, manipulation, and magic. How do you even describe magic?
This play gets damn close. Magic is beautiful, messy, meticulously planned, full of effort, and seeming effortless. Magic makes you feel special and connected to something bigger – the rest of the audience, the rest of the universe, just one other person.
The juxtaposition between a Magician and a Diver is perfect. A Magician plans and executes according to the plan. A Diver practices, but at the end of the day, he has to dive, and trust that they haven’t magically drained the water in the three seconds between board and bottom of the pool. So the play begs the question, which one are you? Both are valid, but I came out of the play thinking that it might be better to leap into the unknown and at least have a shot at experiencing real magic.
I give this play a 10/10. There’s so much more I want to say about it, but honestly, you just need to experience it for yourself. If you don’t want to see the play, *suit* yourself, but you’re missing out!
Number of times I wrote magic in this review (including that one, including the title): 54