Written and directed by Drew Gray.Through March 15 at the English Market Building, 839 Chapel St., New Haven.
A lot of noise has been made about New Haven Theater Company finally getting their own space. I don’t get it, but that’s grist for a future post.
The much more important story, which has been secondary in most of the press for this long-serving local company, is that they’re presenting an original work for a change. The current regime of NHTC has been talking about finding its own space for a while, yes. But they’ve been talking about doing new work for a lot longer. (Previous NHTC managements have had home-base spaces and did new works, contrary to what you’ve read elsewhere, but like I say that’s a story for another time.)
How worthy is The Magician? Well, Drew Gray’s script is at exactly the place it needs to be where it deserves to be staged, seen, discussed and improved. There are scenes that are too long, though it’s remarkable how Gray reins his wordier self in.
It’s often a bad idea to direct one’s own new work, but in this case there’s been a genuine attempt to physicalize the dialogue, not just with the expected magic tricks but with spit takes, fist fights, long bouts of drinking, and a surprise third cast member.
Not sure why the pre-show and post-show music on opening night was Slider-era T. Rex and “Passenger”-era Iggy Pop, but I certainly didn’t mind. The play itself is set in one of those timeless backstage rooms where old-world customs meets modern-day resentments. A magician named Mark (George Kulp), who had his first big break when he was seven years old and has seen his career go downhill ever since, gets some unsettling news about a family member. He pours his heart—and his bottle of booze—out to his manager Ronnie (Peter Chenot), a character which turns the usual clichés on their head by being considerably younger than his client. This isn’t one of those dramas where the ancient manager disillusions and disappointments his eager client. It’s largely the other way around, though both men are despondent for virtually the entire play.
They’re backstage at a casino lounge where the magician act is such a sure thing that it’s performed constantly during the day, with its lighting and sound cues preset on a timer. This is a novel concept that Gray doesn’t do enough with. He does have his anti-hero gets tangled in his own personal struggles to the point where it upends his show. But he generally misses his own metaphor—that a belief in magic and escape is what keeps some people going, sometimes for their entire lives.
As written, magician Mark has so many problems—some of his own making, some not—that empathy for his situation can be hard to come by during some pivotal pity-grubbing scenes.
The debt to David Mamet is profound, and has been acknowledged by Drew Gray. New Haven Theater Company has done productions of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow in the past, and knows how to do dark self-loathing drama without having it spiral completely into bleak humorless exasperation. The company’s mature, but likes to entertain. The Magician has sight gags and staging devices which keep the mood light despite encroaching depressive blackness. Some of these moments are gimmicky and jarring and can take us out of the moment. But the intentions are appreciated.
Beyond the simple set, beyond the brazen attempts to keep a dark play light, and beyond the self-consciously intense acting by Kulp and Chenot (both of whom were in NHTC’s Glengarry Glen Ross, by the way), there’s the main draw of this tight little drama: Drew Gray’s writing. The script has a couple of strong monologues about losing things you never even had, and builds a real plot out of that sort of self-disillusionment. The characters are well-matched, and different enough from each other, that The Magician becomes a useful dialogue about getting one’s shit together.
The next NHTC show, already announced, is the company’s long-delayed production of Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! It’s “an entertainment” about a man who, um, has been enjoying a certain amount of fame by spinning fanciful tales, indulging in trickery and causing concern to their loved ones. Hey! NHTC can do that kind of play by themselves now!