Magic’s having a theatrical moment.
In recent years, career magicians have been apparating on various stages across New York City usually reserved for plays and musicals. They include — but are by no means limited to — The Illusionists on Broadway, Derren Brown’s Secret at the Atlantic Theatre Company, and Derek DelGaudio’s still-running In & Of Itself at the Daryl Roth Theatre. And now, along comes At the Illusionist’s Table, magician Scott Silven’s take on dinner theatre now playing at the McKittrick Hotel.
Though illusion has of course always been an important component of much theatrical fare, the best of these hybrid artistic ventures have likened their conventional magic to the magic of theatrical storytelling. By utilizing each, these performers comment on the nature of both. What would a lot of theatre be without blurring the line between reality and illusion? And what would magic be without the use of storytelling to lure the audience into being duped?
The Illusionists mostly ignored these questions in its pursuit of entertaining families, but Brown and DelGaudio both explored them to various degrees. Whereas the former focused more on his reality-defying tricks, the latter delved far deeper into the psychology of magic and storytelling, specifically their relationship to identity.
At the Illusionist’s Table fits uncomfortably between these two predecessors, and pales in comparison to both. Silven tells stories similar to DelGuadio’s, but they lack their thematic connections; audiences are forced a bit too much to fill in those abstract gaps with their own projections. And many of Silven’s tricks hue too closely to Brown’s, yet they do not possess the same ingenuity, impressiveness, nor sheer volume.
This last point is crucial; though At the Illusionist’s Table lasts about 150 minutes, Silven only performs for half that time. When he’s not trying to dazzle his audiences sitting around a long banquet table — which he walks around throughout, offering everyone a rare up-close-and-personal view — they’re feasting on a three-course meal (plus a whiskey tasting!), which may explain the rather daunting ticket prices.
Reviving dinner theatre in this immersive experience-obsessed age is rather brilliant, replacing its customary kitsch with quality. But if a show is going to make a meal a major part of the evening, then the food damn well better be, you know, good, especially for the excessive cost. The dishes served are merely adequate. Though forcing strangers to talk to each other during these eating portions reinforces the theme of the magical power — or is it powerful magic — of groups, the disappointing grub almost can’t help but make one wonder when the hell Silven will return.
Besides thinking why he chose to take these “act” breaks, I spent much of these intervals trying to figure out the tricks. The show takes place in a converted version of the Heath, a bar at the McKitrick, which also houses Sleep No More. The venue’s antique aesthetics enhance the notion that magicians channel mystical currents that predate modern-day cynicism, and Sleep No More‘s creepiness — not to mention its blurring of what’s real and what’s a part of the show — adds flavor as well.
Despite these bonuses, the fact that this is still a performance space, one with a lot of unknown nooks and crannies to aid performers in their quest to make the unbelievable believable, dampens the intended “How did he do that?!” effect. While busy not eating my bland food, I realized that Silven could easily have human and electronic audiovisual spies all around the foggy, dimly candlelit room. It’s probably not a coincidence that his hair completely covers his ear; hiding earpieces perhaps?
If At the Illusionist‘s Table had matched DelGaudio’s strength of storytelling, it would’ve been a sufficient main attraction, saving the magic from such scrutiny. But since the performance nor the food successfully distract, the tricks must impress most of all…which requires a bit more artful mastery. There’s a reason that Derren Brown dumbfounded everyone by deliberately choosing illusions that revealed information about his audiences that only resided in their minds. In the theatre, we’ve learned not to trust what can be seen and/or heard.