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Editorial Review

Theater review: Washington Stage Guild's charming 'Magic'

By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civil discourse is one of the most attractive calling cards of the Washington Stage Guild. The troupe gets its engaged but level (and literary) temperament from that sly public meddler George Bernard Shaw, and thus, above all other D.C. theaters, the WSG is the place where social disputations are resolved via wit and wry debate, not vitriol.

You can take the troupe's current offering -- G.K. Chesterton's 1913 philosophical comedy "Magic" -- as an example. As soon as the Rev. Cyril Smith arrives in the drawing room of a genially addled Duke, he is met by his opposite number, Dr. Grimthorpe. The reverend and the doctor are both there to lobby: The holy man supports a local pub, while the sawbones is against it. They crack wise over their differences, and the Duke -- nonpartisan in the extreme -- coughs up a check for both sides.

Not that politics is the exact subject of "Magic," though Chesterton adopts some of his friend Shaw's tactics by seasoning a slender romantic plot and generous helpings of sometimes abstract moral dialogue with pointed commentary. As usual, romance is the framework, and this one's about young Patricia Carleon, the Duke's ward, who has recently spent time in Ireland, and a man she takes to be a fairy.

But does she really believe that? Certainly her brother Morris doesn't -- but then Morris has just arrived back in England from America, and therefore doesn't believe in much of anything but business. This American-tainted character is the hothead of the bunch, and when Patricia's fairy-man shows up, he shatters the illusions of both young Carleons.

But does she really believe that? Certainly her brother Morris doesn't -- but then Morris has just arrived back in England from America, and therefore doesn't believe in much of anything but business. This American-tainted character is the hothead of the bunch, and when Patricia's fairy-man shows up, he shatters the illusions of both young Carleons.

This character is known only as the Conjurer; he's been hired by the Duke as an evening's entertainment. For Chesterton, probably best known as the author of the "Father Brown" mysteries, the presence of this spiritualist-faker is sufficient to spark a crisis in each of the characters, and soon the principled debate over science and faith is flying high.

The crisis is most acute, perhaps, for the Conjurer himself, and the bearded Nick DePinto plays this young character with what might be called a fierce uncertainty. (That might describe Chesterton himself, whose faith fluctuated at points in his life.) It's sort of the tone of director Alan Wade's show: Matt Bassett's young Rev. Smith, David Bryan Jackson's seasoned Dr. Grimthorpe, Mad­eline Ruskin's Patricia and Daniel Kenner's Morris all sway between light comedy and peevishness, depending on the ascendancy of their characters' declared positions.

The crisis is most acute, perhaps, for the Conjurer himself, and the bearded Nick DePinto plays this young character with what might be called a fierce uncertainty. (That might describe Chesterton himself, whose faith fluctuated at points in his life.) It's sort of the tone of director Alan Wade's show: Matt Bassett's young Rev. Smith, David Bryan Jackson's seasoned Dr. Grimthorpe, Mad­eline Ruskin's Patricia and Daniel Kenner's Morris all sway between light comedy and peevishness, depending on the ascendancy of their characters' declared positions.

The theater being a magical place itself, there isn't much doubt where the play's sympathies will lie. Still, you can manage without real suspense in this kind of exercise as long as you have intellectual intrigue, but while the performance is thoughtful, it's something short of sprightly in the low-ceilinged Undercroft Theatre (Vincent Clark's neat turn as the half-daft Duke being the nimblest comic exception).

Yet there are lines that delight. "I object to a quarrel because it always interrupts an argument," the Rev. Smith says reasonably as things get testy. "Magic" isn't the WSG at its bemused, burnished best, but as usual, the argument is worth hearing.

Magic: by G.K. Chesterton. Directed by Alan Wade. Setting, Carl F. Gudenius and Paula Wang; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Adalia Vera Tonneyck; sound, David Bryan Jackson; consulting magician, Joe Largess. With Lynn Steinmetz. About 1 hour 40 minutes.