Albie Selznick is a sincere magician, and those are the ones you have to keep an eye on. Once they have your trust, you’ll go with them wherever they take you, and in this case, it’s straight to the heart. In Smoke and Mirrors, Selznick’s autobiographical one-act play/magic show (directed by Paul Millet), a lot of big questions are raised: What do we believe? How can you love other people as much as you love your art? What happens when we die? The show does such a wonderful job of raising questions, and Selznick himself is such a charming performer, that his sincerity almost makes you forget that the show doesn’t answer all of its own questions.
And that’s not for lack of trying. With the very able help of performers Beck Black, Cody Bushee, Yanna Fabian, Rob Martinez, Leeann St. John and Bettina Zacar (not to mention the quick, fun warmup magic of Micah Cover), writer-star Selznick tells us the story of his childhood and the loss of his father, and how he tried to make up for that hole in his life with the study of illusions. He learns to put his fears in a “fear box” (something we do in the audience, too) and to trust in an imaginary bunny friend named “Tricks” (something we do in the audience as well). But with each new advancement in his life, as he climbs the ladder of his profession with Magic Castle auditions, Selznick strips away more of his own illusions and has to face more and more of the doubts and fears that he’s kept locked away.
There’s a lot of stage magic in this show, and it’s presented expertly and in great good fun. Audience participation is naturally a part of it all, and since we’re really close to the performer, this is the good stuff: Close-up magic. (All the big pyrotechnical stunts in stage magic are great, but they’re still mostly engineering. Close-up work is where they separate the masters from the journeymen—and Albie Selznick is no journeyman.) On the night of this critic’s attendance, there were a handful of technical glitches with video and audio components that were met with good humor and panache.
The running homage to Harry Houdini was nice, but the audio excerpts of what sound like actual radio appearances of Selznick’s father were far more resonant and important to the throughline of the play. It’s disappointing to say so, but the script is flawed in some vital ways, and Selznick the writer does not serve Selznick the actor as well as he should. Theoretically, the story builds to a proper conclusion, and on paper it would. But by linking a one-act autobiographical play to a stage magic performance, Selznick creates a dissonance between the razzle-dazzle buildup of a magic show and the much more quiet, fadeaway sort of ending that the story actually has. Smoke and Mirrors leaves one with a sense of something missing… the arcs don’t feel like they sync exactly right, and the play seems to stop more than end. It’s entertaining, but it isn’t entirely dramatically satisfying.
Smoke and Mirrors is a good time in the theater and worth seeing for that. But it also has more to offer, and it almost delivers in full. Here’s hoping that Albie Selznick will take the opportunity to bring a little more harmony to this piece and get it all the way to that last stage of perfection.
Smoke and Mirrors is in a return engagement at Santa Monica’s Promenade Playhouse Through December 16, with a special Halloween night show. You can get all the details at the show’s website. (Note: Through no fault of the producers, the parking structure they advise attendees to use no longer exists! That’s right, there is no Parking Structure 6. I suggest you use the nearest facility, Parking Structure 4.)