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‘The Magic Play’ finesses dramatic sleight-of-hand

Brett Schneider stars as The Magician in the world premiere of Andrew Hinderaker's "The Magic Play," at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

True to its title, “The Magic Play,” Andrew Hinderaker’s highly original, altogether remarkable new work, is full of sleight-of-hand astonishments. But the real magic in this engrossing theatrical hybrid — now receiving a meticulously polished world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, in what is unquestionably a Broadway-ready production — involves a very different bag of tricks altogether.

‘THE MAGIC PLAY’

Highly recommended

When: Through Nov. 20

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $10 – $40

Info: www.GoodmanTheatre.org

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission

First, there is Hinderaker’s artful script, which probes matters of love, betrayal, trust, emotional control, absent fathers, career failure, the relative importance of seeing or being seen, and more. It also asks this question: Is a lie more beautiful than the truth?

Then there is Halena Kays’ impeccably lean yet emotionally complex direction, and the work of her design team, which makes special effects an essential part of the storytelling, while simultaneously raising its own questions about what is real and what is illusory.

But above all, there is the deep magic of Brett Schneider, a pale, slender, intense young actor who is so good he makes his acting all but disappear. He also is a magician/illusion designer so extraordinarily gifted he can fearlessly demonstrate his legerdemain in magnified style. Scan the program and you will note the has no understudy. In fact, there might not be anyone else on the planet who can carry off the demands of this play’s central character — a role devised in an inspired collaboration between playwright and performer. And that might just be the ultimate trick. At the same time, there is immense pleasure in simply watching the balletic grace with which Schneider can unfurl a deck of cards on a table.

Sean Parris (left) plays The Diver and Brett Schneider is The Magician in “The Magic Play,” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Sean Parris (left) plays The Diver and Brett Schneider is The Magician in “The Magic Play,” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

While an actual “house of cards” is part of the set for ‘The Magic Play,” it also serves as a perfect metaphor for the emotional fragility (and surprising strength) of the three characters in Hinderaker’s story. The crucial “fourth” element in this play — and do not cringe at the notion, because it, too, is finessed flawlessly — is the audience. At various moments The Magician (Schneider) brings an audience member up on stage to participate in his games of trust and perception.

Yet what grabs hold every bit as much as the magic is the story. And that story begins when The Magician selects The Diver (Sean Parris in a witty, charming, seemingly effortless turn) from an audience one night, and is initially intrigued and challenged by the edgy confidence of this handsome young man, and then fully smitten by him.

The Diver is a competitive high diving board athlete determined to win a spot on the Olympic team. When he meets The Magician he also is recovering from a calamitous relationship meltdown that has left his ability to trust anyone, including himself, shattered. And while he and The Magician clearly come to feel deeply about each other, both are skittish.

For The Magician, the problem is rooted in his relationship to The Father (Francis Guinan in his most impeccable form) — or, more accurately, the lack of that relationship. The Father is a magician, but unlike his artistic son, he is a hack who works at a casino in Nevada. A philanderer, he left the family when The Magician was just eight years old (Hinderaker riffs on Tennessee Williams’ line about a man who in love with long distance), and hasn’t seen his son since. The gaping hole left by The Magician’s need for his father’s love and approval is evident to The Diver, who challenges him to seek the man out and come to terms with him. And that father-son encounter is the source of a profound and painful scene that is both exquisitely written and played.

At the center of a magician’s work are the most subtle forms of manipulation and control. His art involves precision-tuned deception and risk-taking that must be wedded to the observer’s desire to be bedazzled out of his or her innate doubt. And as Hinderaker demonstrates here (and in such earlier plays as “Suicide, Incorporated,” “Dirty,” and the brief “Austin, Texas,” all premiered by The Gift Theatre of Chicago), he knows all about those things.

The magic here (including an astonishing finale that should not be revealed), is superb and unconventional in many ways with John Boesche’s projections, Lizzie Bracken’s semi-opaque set, Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s lighting, Christopher Kriz’s sound and the stellar magic design of Jim Steinmeyer, an acknowledged master of the art, absolutely essential to the play’s success.

“Just a card,” The Magician tells us, using that familiar phrase as he flashes the back and front of an ace of spades or a queen of hearts. That might (or might not) be the case. But one thing is for certain: This is definitely not “just a play.”

Francis Guinan (left) plays The Father, and Brett Schneider is The Magician in “The Magic Play,” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Francis Guinan (left) plays The Father, and Brett Schneider is The Magician in “The Magic Play,” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)