The magic in “Smoke and Mirrors” is fanciful and fantastic. It is clear that Albie Selznick has worked for decades as a master illusionist at The Magic Castle and beyond. Selznick makes birds and animals and audience surveys disappear. He swallows fire, walks on stilts, eats extremely sharp objects and engages in a host of tricks that never fail to enthrall.
Selznick’s terrific magic functions as fun diversion from the slightly more awkward autobiographical story that begins to explain, but doesn’t fully, Selznick’s reasons for entering into a life of magic.
The story lingers for too long in the rabbit hat of Selznick’s childhood, where Selznick wears pajamas and speaks with a lisp, before it meanders off into random sleeves of Houdini tricks, which are interesting but not necessarily thematically connected, and uncomfortable descriptions of a particular show tour across the world.
The story trajectory is akin to that of a magician who pulls from his mouth a red ribbon that turns midway into a dove that flies into a window and then bunny-hops away on a tightrope.
If the central question is “Why might one become a magician?” then there is much to explore about not only Selznick’s motivation for becoming a magician, which was in part to fill a void left by his father’s untimely death, but the motivations of other magicians in order to provide a more well-rounded answer to that single key question.
In such a case, the audience would witness a wheelhouse of perfectly-executed tricks performed, here, by world-class Selznick, and, over the course of generations, by many other world-class magicians, while simultaneously contemplating those various world-class magicians’ myriad motivations.
If Selznick prefers to stay focused on his own story, then there is much to examine without spending too much time as a nine year-old boy or sharing that risky story about performing for disabled kids in New Zealand.
It is as though Selznick, like many memoirists, isn’t perfectly clear about his purpose for sharing certain aspects of his own story. It isn’t enough to feel compelled to share. The stories should all relate to the overarching theme, and they should provide for the audience an opportunity to reflect upon their own lives.
After all, the goal of memoir is not to teach the audience about the memoirist, but to teach the audience about themselves.
Now, if the central question is a different question -- if it is that which is printed on the program and posed to the audience at the outset: “What are you afraid of?” and the theme is instead “there is nothing to fear, as life’s pains are but smoke and mirrors” despite the fact that Selznick says his own primary interest lies in why people become magicians, and despite the fact that the play opens with Selznick’s own reason for becoming a magician, then there is a thematic disconnect, which further renders the story not quite as magical as the magic.
The other performers involved in “Smoke and Mirrors” add to the show much levity and energy. Particularly engaging are Brandy Laplante as the sexy assistant, Teena Pugliese as the life-size rabbit, The Oracle as, well, The Oracle, and the children magicians, which appear mostly in the lobby beforehand and afterward and which include David Valdes, Daniel Samson and Jackie Radinsky. Radinsky is especially gifted at both performing sophisticated sleights of hand while conversing precociously with his adult subjects.
Those who love magic will altogether enjoy “Smoke and Mirrors," directed with finesse and agility by Paul Millet. Those who are not so fond of literal memoir -- or of plays with two distinct and oft-competing themes -- will also enjoy “Smoke and Mirrors” but might also wish they could cut it in half.