Elephant Room

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Editorial Review

Review: In need of a bigger bag of tricks

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2011

The Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage’s architecturally high-toned third stage, may not have been the ideal host for “Elephant Room,” a tacky bit of absurdist illusioneering, informed by the ambience of strip-mall cocktail lounges and landscapes featured on motel room walls.

No, “Elephant Room,” written and performed by Steve Cuiffo, Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford, would look far more comfortable in some ramshackle, claustrophobic space, where its raw aesthetics and ironic sensibility might not pose the glaring counterpoint that it does to refined surroundings.

As it is, the 70-minute show, directed by Paul Lazar, comes across as a thin — and occasionally downright sloppy — riff on the sorry state of that quaint staple of birthday parties and down-market casinos, the professional magician. Relying on the good will of audience members (a couple of whom are brought into the antics) the show gives the appearance of being more sincere than, say, something caustically whipped up by the put-on jokester Sacha Baron Cohen of “Borat” fame.

Or is the magic rickety by design? It’s ultimately not transparent, for instance, whether the three performers — Cuiffo in the guise of Louie Magic; Sobelle as Dennis Diamond and Lyford calling himself, er, Daryl Hannah — intend here to demystify magic, a la Penn and Teller; mock it; or honor it. (Maybe it’s all three: They end the production by, patronizingly, reciting a sort of roll call of magicians past.) But along with the more adroit tricks, as in their conjuring of the ingredients of a niftily cooked breakfast, are some highly slipshod gags. Several times, a spectator catches them pulling out items concealed in their jackets, or from hiding places on the set, that they then represent as having materialized in presto-change-o fashion.

Magicians presenting themselves as comically inept have to be incredibly agile, because when the reversal occurs, and they turn out to be true masters, the effects have to be pristine. If, however, some of the sleight of hand really turns out to be slight, an audience’s impressions dissolve from wonder into impatience.

Sobelle and Lyford were at Studio Theatre four years ago as the postmodern physical comedy duo rainpan 43. One of their productions, “All Wear Bowlers,” inventively intermingled live performance and film to draw parallels between Charlie Chaplin’s inimitable silent foolery and more modern forms of clowning. That exercise was a far more thoughtful and endearing effort than the meandering “Elephant Room.”

What the elephant in the room is I'll let you decide, but the sight gag that makes the metaphor concrete is just one more of the evening’s non-sequiturs. The magicians, in bad wigs and false teeth — Sobelle’s character, for example, looks like the aforementioned Borat, and Lyford wears a cowboy jacket and a mullet — flash us big, smarmy grins. “This is our magic rec room,” explains Cuiffo’s Louie, a Gallagher lookalike, on a shabby set by Mimi Lien that seems to be perched on cinder blocks.

Most of the tricks are advanced versions of the classic now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t gags that kids practice with their own magic kits, in their own rec rooms. Eggs vanish and reappear in the magicians’ hands. Milk is made to flow from the unlikeliest vessels. Occasionally, music cranks up and the magicians gyrate in unison, like the wannabe ladies’ men of the “Night at the Roxbury” sketches.

If all these guys are doing is making us feel silly for having believed — a variation on the task magicians attempt — then “Elephant Room” is a meaner-spirited piece than I’m allowing for. In any event, it’s probably the kind of entertainment best viewed by an audience in an altered state. Because in one’s right frame of mind, the show reveals it has very little up its sleeve.

By Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle. Directed by Paul Lazar. Set, Mimi Lien; costumes, Christal Weatherly; lighting, Christopher Kuhl; sound, Nick Kourtides. About 70 minutes. Through Feb. 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

‘Elephant Room’: Do you believe in magic?

By Maura Judkis
Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012

The most magical place in Washington, according to traveling magicians Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic and Daryl Hannah (no, not that one), is a dingy waterfront bar in the Channel Inn. When they sidle up to the bar, their favorite bartender makes a round of shots appear.

The drinks are just the first of many things to materialize over the course of the evening. Next come half-dollar coins that fly from Magic's hands into my closed fists. Then foam balls, cards and a puff of smoke that furls up to the ceiling from my pressed-together palms. After that, a giraffe-shaped balloon animal, a 15-foot-long streamer that gets coughed up from Magic's mouth and, finally, an explosion of confetti.

Yet the magicians' appearance this week in the District in the show "Elephant Room" - their first theatrical performance and the first show of its kind at the Arena Stage - may leave them disillusioned with their audience.

"D.C.'s got more tricks than we've got. It's full of deception. That's why people appreciate it here," Magic said. "We know there are people coming to the show looking for tips - politicians, looking for tricks."

"Elephant Room" is a magic show in that it contains grand illusion and sleight of hand, but it's also a theatrical experience. As the magicians do their tricks, we learn about what brought them here, to Arena Stage and to this point in their lives - tough childhoods, bad luck in love, spiritual awakenings. These personal transformations imbue their onstage transformations with a higher significance.

"If you endow [the trick] with a simple meaning, saying, 'Isn't this just like life, how one thing transforms into another, or we lose things?' you give meaning to the effect," Diamond said.

"You have to manifest your own magic in your own life," Hannah said.

But like so many others who come to Washington, these magicians aren't necessarily who they appear to be.

Different paths

The magicians took to their craft in different ways. Diamond, who dresses in custom-made, elaborately embroidered sparkly jackets with the occasional Nehru collar, says he grew up a lonely kid in San Bernadino, Calif., learning magic tricks after he saw a show by grand illusionist Doug Henning, and later going on to work for Carnival Cruises.

Hannah, who sports a mullet and a moustache, says he got into magic later in life, after his marriage fell apart and his wife took his daughter, Montana (yes, Montana Hannah - no, not inspired by that other one). He studied magic from a Native American tribe in Arizona and specialized in tricks with birds until he became allergic. He also went to Alcoholics Anonymous, and he credits that and magic with helping him get his life back together.

Louie Magic, who learned his first magic trick at 10, uses sleight of hand to aid him in romantic endeavors. When we sat down at the Channel Inn, he asked me if I have a boyfriend.

"I'm Louie Magic, Ladies' Man of Magic," he said. "I just want to know what the territory is. I'm not coming on to you or anything, I want to be respectful of your boyfriend, or whatever."

He said I should bring friends to the show. "Not your boyfriend."

Magic then asked me to write my phone number on a playing card in permanent ink. He shuffled it into the deck, and moments later, the card appeared in a container of Altoid mints, which had been sitting in front of me on the table the entire time.

Diamond feigned surprise, as he did when anyone else, or even himself, completed a successful magic trick.

"Come on! Fantastic! Fantastic."

The way they tell it, Diamond, Magic and Hannah were at a magician's convention in Buffalo where they met writers who were looking to incorporate magic into their shows. Those writers - Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle - came from performance collectives, including New York's the Wooster Group and Philadelphia's Rainpan43, known for "absurdist actor-created performance works."

Cuiffo "works with experimental theater, it's called," Diamond said.

"I went to see one his shows, the Wooster group," Magic said. "It's one of the weirdest [expletive] things I've ever seen in my life. I fell asleep halfway through."

They assumed the writers were asking them to play wizards and warlocks, Diamond and Hannah said, continuing their story.

Except when you look up information about the Wooster group and Rainpan43, you see bios and pictures of Cuiffo, Lyford and Sobelle, and they look an awful lot like Magic, Hannah and Diamond, respectively, without the wigs and moustaches. A funny coincidence, according to the staff at Arena Stage, who will neither confirm nor deny that the writers and performers are, in fact, the same people.

Kirstin Franko, director of media relations for Arena Stage, said Magic, Hannah and Diamond don't go by any other names. (Magic says his legal name is Louie Magic, Diamond says he was Craig Dvorkin in a former life, and Hannah says he has lived his whole life under the shadow of the other Daryl Hannah, to his chagrin.) But when asked about their resemblance to the writers, she laughed and said "that's curious," finally conceding that she had never seen the writers and magicians together in the same room.

There's a famous quote, attributed to Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the 19th-century master of magic from whom the Great Houdini took his name: "A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician." In this case, the guys of "Elephant Room" are actors playing magicians who are actors playing magicians - an absurdist actor-created performance, indeed.

As Diamond drinks his white Russian, his moustache begins to peel off.

"Elephant Room" was a hit at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, and the magicians said that when the writers told them that they were bringing it to Arena Stage, they thought they had hit the big time - but not because Arena was a Tony Award-winning regional theater ("designed by George Jetson," according to Diamond).

"The first concert I ever went to was at the Meadowlands arena," said Magic, who adds an '80s hair-rock vibe to the show (the concert was Warrant, he said). "So when I came here, I was expecting a frickin' arena. I wasn't let down."

"You were let down," Diamond said.

"I just had told a whole bunch of people we were playing the arena in D.C. It was embarrassing," Magic said.

"It's still really impressive, I guess, in the community theater world," Diamond said. "It's a very important community theater. They love it here."

I don't know how Magic, Diamond and Hannah do their tricks, but I do know that the more nonchalant they appear to be about "community theater," the more that writers and actors Cuiffo, Lyford and Sobelle are, as their stuck-in-the-'80s alter egos might say, totally psyched to be here.

They finished their drinks, and Magic performed one last card trick: He shuffled the deck, and I selected, without showing it to him, the Jack of Hearts. He shuffled it again, left the deck on the table, and I watched it the whole time as we put on our coats and got ready to leave. Then he took it over to the window, where he said the light was better for the trick, and flung the cards everywhere. I looked for the Jack of Hearts. It was outside the restaurant, stuck on the other side of a glass window that could not be opened.

"Come on!" Diamond said. "That's amazing!"