Are most minds worth the read? I can picture my personal table of contents on most evenings: anxieties, petty grievances, errands to run. It’s not exactly scintillating. Want a few frazzled paragraphs on whether we need milk? Great. Start skimming.
But some of us must invite and enjoy this perusal. Because mentalism acts, such as those perfected by Derren Brown, Derek DelGaudio or Scott Silven, remain popular. So popular that Mischief theater company, the creators of blissfully inane comedies like “The Play That Goes Wrong” and “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” can spoof the form in “Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion” at New World Stages in Manhattan.
Created by Mischief’s cheerfully unusual suspects, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, “Mind Mangler” begins in the way of many mind-reading shows: ominous music, flickering lights, an invitation to write a secret on a piece of paper. On one side of the stage, a locked box dangles. On the other, a safe stands — audience members are invited to guess its four-digit combination. Then with some fanfare and a very large gold medallion necklace, Lewis, the Mangler of the title, arrives.
Bestriding the stage with the growl of a lion shaking off last night’s Ambien dose, the Mangler vows that we will be “delighted, astounded and amazed.” Promise or empty threat? As Mischief fans can predict (and the Mangler most likely can’t), the first few tricks, parodies of subliminal suggestion and neurolinguistics programming, don’t go well. The Mangler flounders. He flails. He flops. Other tricks are absolute face plants, especially those relying on an audience stooge, his roommate, Steve (Sayer), who wobbles under the stage lights like an animate Jell-O salad. That Steve wears a shirt emblazoned with the words “Audience Member” doesn’t exactly sell the deception.
Mischief specializes in trampling the boundary between offstage and onstage, reality and make believe. In its oeuvre, the private lives of actors, directors and stagehands become public with hilarious, disastrous results. Here, under Hannah Sharkey’s giddy, amused direction, the Mangler is revealed as a grandiose idiot in the midst of a messy divorce, with Steve as his sole, rickety support. As premises go, this one is too flimsy to shoulder the show’s two hours. Still, there’s pleasure in Lewis’s tetchy, improvised crowd work and in Sayer’s gibbering terror — not so much a deer in the headlights as a deer already under the wheels.
Yet as the show goes on (a few gentle spoilers follow), something surprising happens: The tricks start to work. While the Mangler remains the butt of nearly every joke, the jokes come off. Rubik’s Cubes cooperate. Metal bends. Unless (as at the matinee I attended) a teenager decides to mess with him, secrets are unveiled. The piece builds to a rousing, grisly finale, and further delights spring from that locked box, which spends the show, as the Mangler says, “like me at the New York Magic Society, suspended until further notice.”
Mentalism fans may find these final delights familiar, particularly if they have seen Dan White’s “The Magician,” an elegant, polished performance, directed by Jonathan Bayme and Blake Vogt and held in a loftlike space atop Fotografiska on Park Avenue South. Ascend past a delightful exhibition of pet photos, and you will find a room of cafe tables and chairs. The stage is empty. And then, after a blinding flash, White is there.
White, in a fussy three-piece suit ornamented with a watch chain, commands these few square feet with dapper authority. He assures his viewers that this is “a magic show unlike any you’ve ever seen.” Which isn’t really true. But if none of White’s tricks are new, he does put a distinct spin on them, a debonair torque. His tools are commonplace, but in his hands — or without his hands ever touching them — they feel novel and distinct. No matter how impossible it might seem to guess a number, a word, a birthday (my god, the birthday!), White accomplishes it all. Sometimes he’ll appear to put a foot or a flourish wrong, but these flubs are deliberate and never diminish White’s urbane effortlessness. Serious-minded and nimble-fingered, he knows how to build dramatic tension and also how to puncture it with a self-deprecating joke. He can relax even the most jittery viewers.
White’s audience, lubricated by several rounds of pricey cocktails, lost their minds at each reveal. Some of the tricks are revealed in stages, which meant that they could lose them again and again. The only trick that went awry (at least for me, and I was sober) was one that I was asked to perform myself, using a handful of halved playing cards. Magic, I would argue, isn’t easy for everyone.
Mario Marchese might disagree with me. A superb children’s magician, Marchese is in residency at SoHo Playhouse with “Mario the Maker Magician.” Shaggy-haired, wild-eyed and excitable, he contends that a person can make magic out of anyone and anything. “My job today,” he tells his height-challenged crowd, “is to take the things that you call boring and remind you that with a little curiosity and imagination, you can create magic.”
True to his word, he conjures wonder from a tape measure, a pizza box, a handkerchief, soup cans and torn paper. He makes his own robots and also his own inflatables, though at the performance I attended, one was rapidly deflating. As a mother of young children, I have seen many, many kids’ magicians. He is very likely the best, delighting in their participation, never talking down to them.
Have you spent much time with elementary schoolers? Unruly and distractible, they are rarely capable of sustained attention. Marchese held them in the palms of his deft hands. The children, onstage and in the seats, were rapt throughout, following along diligently, responding enthusiastically.
Marchese seemed to know just what they wanted, just what they needed, just what would thrill them most. Almost as if he could read their minds.
Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion
Through March 3 at New World Stages, Manhattan; mindmanglernyc.com.
Through Jan. 20 at Fotografiska, Manhattan; themagicianonline.com.
Mario the Maker Magician
Through Dec. 30 at SoHo Playhouse, Manhattan; sohoplayhouse.com.