John Pielmeier's "Sleight of Hand" at the Cort, is slight indeed, but you'll want to keep your eye on the bunny
by Clive Barnes
New York Post, May 4, 1897
The new play "Sleight of Hand", which opened at the Cort Theatre last night, is certainly slight, but it is also, almost unexpectedly, handy-- for anyone demanding an undemanding evening of slick tricks, unsurprising surprises, and chill thrills.
This conjuring extravaganza of a thriller seems to have been virtually more constructed than written by John Pielmeier, and the story has as much literary interest as a card trick. Also-- beware-- the ending, as is the way of both unravelled thrillers and explained conjuring tricks, tends to flop down with the deflating air of an anticlimax reaching its peak.
Still, face it, flat endings are the price you pay for ongoing suspense, and even such redoubtable Broadway thriller-chillers as "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap" really had no more fizz at the end than old champagne. And Mr. Pielmeier is ingenious enough in his fashion. His hero is Paul, a magician, beloved of the East Side children's party set, with ambitions toward grander illusions. Sharon, Paul's girlfriend of the moment, whom he teases unmercifully with his tricks and perhaps-- who can tell?-- a hint of sadistic malice, is a dancer rehearsing an Edgar Allan Poe musical called-- what else-- "Poe on Toe".
The time is Christmas Eve, but Sharon has gone off to rehearse, leaving Paul in his loft with no one but his professional rabbit, Jabber. But then Paul has a visitor: a man with a gun and a badge, who says his name is Dancer, does not appear to be one of Santa Claus' reindeer, and claims to be a detective from this city's Police Department. Be that as it may; Dancer drinks on duty. So it's just as well that Paul has mastered-- among any number of spellbinding tricks-- a little one that miraculously pulls a White Horse out of a balloon; the White Horse in question being of course a bottle of scotch, which they both drink.
Now the plot muddies, and there are enough twists to make a corkscrew go straight. I will just let one cat out of the bag for the sake of the animal lovers: don't worry too much about the rabbit!
When Mr. Pielmeier, the author of "Agnes of God", started out, it seems likely that he had a more serious intent than that which eventually jumped out of his hat onto the stage. At one point Paul warns audiences that they are "too willing to believe in the benevolence of magicians; we want not only to mystify, we want to frighten". One can see that a Gothic tale might have emerged from a sadistically inclined magician; and that it has not done so here is, ironically enough, doubtless owing in part the the efficiacy of the magic tricks. You cannot take anything too seriously when you know that it is illusion. Thus what we have here is a vastly superior Doug Henning show rather than a macabre spook-out.
And mention of Doug Henning instantly brings me to the real hero of the evening, the magic consultant Charles Reynolds-- is there a Tony Award for magic?-- who, with the special effects team of Jauchem and Meech, gives the show its illusory backbone. Reynolds has in the past been consultant for such sorcerers as Henning and Harry Blackstone, and here he proves that anyone can be a magician, even the affable and clearly nimble fingered actor Harry Groener. Now Mr. Groener has never been a stage magician before, but-- presumably an unusually apt pupil, although I note he has an understudy!-- he can appear as miraculous a wizard as Henning himself. And a good deal more personable and convincing.
The script is continually promising to teach us magic, and to show how the tricks are done. Mercifully it reneges on the promise; but what it does show (almost as revealingly) is that anyone, perhaps only needing some flair for prestidigitation, can be a magician. While Reynolds could doubtless make a mini-Houdini out of thin air, with the dapper, engaging Groener he has had a major triumph, and Groener, if he wants it, has stumbled dextrously into a new career.
Groener's co-star, Jeffery DeMunn as Dancer, has not here found the vital role his vibrant talents need to confirm him as one of our most interesting actors. Still he registers anxiety and frustration rewardingly, and, under the direction and swordsmanship tutelage of the admirable B.H. Barry, fights a good fight with Groener. As the woman in the picture, Priscilla Shanks has the somewhat passive role of a lady being cut in half, but she endures everything charmingly. Walton Jones has directed the actors between the tricks resourcefully, and the scenery by Loren Sherman (particularly his second-act rehearsal set, with a beautiful Pit and Pendulum artifact) is most effective, as is the lighting by Richard Nelson.
Despite the absense of disguise-- sometimes regarded as essential to the genre-- I thought this was one of the best thrillers since "Sleuth" and last season's unlucky "Corpses".