As anyone who’s ever endeavored to create art knows it can be thrilling and also frustrating. An example is the story about the late Sir Laurence Olivier, regarded as the finest Hamlet of his era. One night Olivier’s performance was flawless. But, after receiving a thunderous standing ovation, he fled to his dressing room whereupon he destroyed the furniture.
Incredulous, the Stage Manger implored Olivier to open the door, which revealed the room in shambles. “But Sir Laurence, you were absolutely perfect tonight,” the Stage Manger said. “I know,” Olivier replied despondently, “and I have no idea how I did it.”
I mention this because Albie Selznick, a friend and neighbor, is a magician and storyteller extraordinaire who has written and performed a play “Smoke and Mirrors” for the past four years. The first year it was staged at the historic Santa Monica Playhouse and then it moved to the Promenade Playhouse on 3rd Street. It’s currently at the Road Theatre in N. Hollywood.
When I say “written,” in fact Albie has re-written it over and over. Actually writing has often been described as the art of the rewriting. In Albie’s case, the result is a wonderful and unique show the type of which I don’t think has ever been done before. Albie combines magic along with drama in the telling of a young boy’s journey to overcome his fears. “Smoke and Mirrors” has been getting rave reviews, seemingly more praiseworthy with each new incarnation of the play.
With logic-defying illusions interwoven into the plot, it’s a fascinating and touching autobiographical story. When he was 9, Albie’s psychiatrist father passed away suddenly. Dr. Selznick had been a fan of magic and had given his young son his first magic set.
Understandably, the trauma of losing his dad was devastating. In his effort to reconnect with his father, Albie was drawn to the world of renowned escape artist and magician, Harry Houdini, who, for a time, believed that the spirit of those passed could reach those still living. As it happens, for Santa Monica historians the legend of Houdini still exists.
Filmed in 1919 high above our fair city, Houdini starred in the much ballyhooed silent movie “The Grim Game,” which featured a mid-air transfer by Houdini from the wings of one plane to another. Though no one died, one plane crashed in a vacant field near downtown. (Imagine that with today’s traffic. For that matter, imagine a vacant field near downtown.)
The crash caused such national attention that the plane’s wreckage was displayed in the lobby of Denver’s Princess Theatre. Many now claim it wasn’t the same plane, the crash had been an elaborate stunt and it wasn’t even Houdini wing-walking from one plane to the other. We’ll never know.
As I mentioned the rave reviews “Smoke and Mirrors” has been getting, none was more to the point than the one in the Tolucan Times. “More than just a display of magic, and as striking as any dramatic piece, it excels as it infuses the synergy of illusion and deception to tell a story complete with arc, complexity and emotional impact.”
Much of the emotional charm of the play is that it’s told at first through the eyes of a fearful 9-year-old boy. As a result audiences include theatergoers of all ages, including many children. Remarkably inventive, Albie uses his improvisational talents as he interacts with kids of from 6 to 96 and then deftly returns to the script effortlessly.
The magic fascinates the youngsters, and their parents for that matter, as its appeal seems universal. Albie attributes this to, “We all want to believe there’s something more.” And the story references and venerates the ever-compelling Houdini and his wife Bess played outstandingly by Laura Stahl. Kyle Hall plays the physically demanding role of a human-size rabbit and Michael Heiman is the Oracle, a giant head that mind-reads the audience. The talented backstage crew includes Anthony Cosmano, Danielle Stephens and Tim Miller.
I’ve watched Albie re-work and re-write the play straining to get every word and every illusion letter perfect. (He says he hasn’t destroyed any furniture yet, then again, I haven’t been inside his apartment.) Now “Smoke and Mirrors” is as tight as it’s ever been charming audiences at a spellbinding hour and twenty minutes. It has an emotionally satisfying and mind-blowing finale but you’re going to have to see it in person to find that out.
This group of talented actors has given over 250 performances and now longs to take “Smoke and Mirrors” to Broadway or, to be more accurate, off-Broadway. They’ve already received investor interest but are seeking more. (Hint, hint.)
As for fulfilling his Broadway dreams, Albie is philosophical. “It’ll take 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration and perhaps a little magic.”
(“Smoke and Mirrors” will run through the end of the year at the Road Theatre in N. Hollywood. For more info call (310) 450-2849 or go to www.SmokeAndMirrorsMagic.com. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)