Goodman drama underscores power of belief in love and 'Magic'

  • Actor/magician Brett Schneider stars in Andrew Hinderaker's "The Magic Play" in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre.

    Actor/magician Brett Schneider stars in Andrew Hinderaker's "The Magic Play" in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 11/2/2016 10:56 AM

Magic is a lot like love. You believe or you don't.

You accept that a magician can pluck from a shuffled deck the playing card with your name on it. Or, you watch warily to discover the trick behind the treat.

 

It's the same with love. You anticipate finding your soul mate among the planet's 7.5 billion humans and creating a happily ever after. Or you hesitate, fearing love will sour and the bad taste will linger.

Andrew Hinderaker ("Suicide, Incorporated," Showtime's "Penny Dreadful") conflates these not so disparate concepts in "The Magic Play." The intriguingly imperfect, intimate work premiered this week at Goodman Theatre under Halena Kays, a veteran of Chicago's storefront theater scene whose introspective direction suggests a keen awareness of the power of the pause. Commissioned by Roundabout Theatre and developed through Goodman's 2014 New Stages Festival, Hinderaker's play is something of a hybrid. Part magic show, part relationship drama, it examines trust, the conflict between the professional and the personal, and the tension between illusion and reality.

The play centers on The Magician, who devotes his life to perpetuating an illusion. Played with marked vulnerability and wistful detachment by skilled magician/actor Brett Schneider, The Magician is dogged by fear and insecurity. He compensates by excelling in a profession where he controls every variable, leaving nothing to chance.

The Magician (Brett Schneider), right, is at the top of his game professionally but stumbles when it comes to personal relationships in Andrew Hinderaker's "The Magic Play," running through Nov. 20 at Goodman Theatre.
The Magician (Brett Schneider), right, is at the top of his game professionally but stumbles when it comes to personal relationships in Andrew Hinderaker's "The Magic Play," running through Nov. 20 at Goodman Theatre. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren
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"The lie is more beautiful than the truth," he tells his lover, an Olympic hopeful known as The Diver (a charming, disarmingly cocky Sean Parris). But the qualities that ensure professional success prove problematic when it comes to romantic relationships, whose variables are beyond his control.

The action unfolds over the course of The Magician's show, which he performs shortly after The Diver leaves him. As he delivers his scrupulously structured sleight-of-hand (which the audience views courtesy of a live video feed), memories of his ex intrude.

Hinderaker juxtaposes The Magician's performance on stage with scenes from the couple's private life. Those scenes reveal two damaged people who've had their hearts broken and who struggle with trust issues as a result.

The Magician (Brett Schneider), right, visits his father (Francis Guinan), an old-school magician playing a small Reno casino, in Goodman Theatre's premiere of Andrew Hinderaker's "The Magic Play."
The Magician (Brett Schneider), right, visits his father (Francis Guinan), an old-school magician playing a small Reno casino, in Goodman Theatre's premiere of Andrew Hinderaker's "The Magic Play." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But The Magician's insecurities are more deeply rooted. They stem from unresolved issues with his absent father (the always genuine Francis Guinan), an old-school magician who abandoned the family years earlier and scrapes by playing a middling Reno casino.

I won't spoil the play by revealing the clever tricks magic designer Jim Steinmeyer conjures. But at least one will have you at the edge of your seat. Another -- which demonstrates how easily a person can be erased from our lives -- will tug at your heart.

The effects -- expertly performed by magic consultant Schneider -- are delightful. But the mood underscoring "The Magic Play" is bittersweet. Hinderaker addresses provocative issues and his scenes resonate emotionally, like the performances of Kays' cast. But the play could use refining, particularly the coda. While sweet and no doubt well-intentioned (in that it involves the entire audience), it took me out of the story.

Far more affecting is the secret Schneider's Magician reveals.

Halena Kays directs magician/actor Brett Schneider in "The Magic Play," Andrew Hinderaker's combination magic show and relationship drama in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre.
Halena Kays directs magician/actor Brett Schneider in "The Magic Play," Andrew Hinderaker's combination magic show and relationship drama in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

"The truth is, I can't convince you," he says.

Meaning the magician can't persuade his audience a trick is real. They have to suspend disbelief and persuade themselves. But his statement doesn't just apply to magic. It applies to people. No one can convince you of his or her love. You take the declaration on faith; you set aside your fear and doubt. And you believe the love is real.

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