A faded manse with the air of something out of a Henry James novel, the Arts Club of Washington conjures a place where you might hear a staid lecture on 19th-century horticulture. But as soon as David Morey hits the stage — presto change-o! — it’s Vegas, baby!
On a Thursday night in December, Morey, wearing a microphone wrapped around his neck like a tie, kicks off Washington Magic, a monthly show he conceived last year with fellow magician Savino Recine. The room is packed with aficionados of prestidigitation who have paid $65 to $75 for dinner, an open bar and the possibility that — at least for a few hours — what’s happening elsewhere in the nation’s capital will all just disappear.
The duo’s act offers neither the campy theatrics of Criss Angel nor the deadpan delivery of David Blaine. In fact, Morey and Recine are a pair of unlikely magicians. With his thick mustache and thicker accent, Recine, 69, looks more like the affable proprietor of an Italian restaurant — which he was for 30 years, most recently operating the now-shuttered Primi Piatti next door. Morey, meanwhile, who gives his age as “on the other side of 60,” could easily pass as the strategic consultant he is by day for such corporations as Nike and Disney.
Perhaps it’s his restaurant acumen that explains the success of Recine’s set, in which, blindfolded and hooded for good measure, he accurately identifies a variety of beverages that an audience member points to. “Ladies and gentlemen!” the mentalist says with a flourish, “we are connected!” He performs another experiment in affinity, this time on a pair of blindfolded volunteers who look to be father and daughter. When he taps the dad on the arm, the daughter reports feeling the tap in the same spot on her arm. “No way!” gasps a woman sitting at a table up front. Her companion makes a gobsmacked “Home Alone” face.
Recine isn’t the only one with strong connections. Morey got none other than David Copperfield to write the foreword to “Creating Business Magic,” his book about using the power of magic as a strategic tool. And one of his co-authors — and tonight’s guest magician — is John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA. (What is it about grown men of sober profession and magic?) Dressed in a three-piece suit, McLaughlin does tricks with an egg, comparing them to covert intelligence operations (it’s complicated).
Morey fell in love with the art of illusion as a 5-year-old in Bucks County, Pa., after seeing a magician on TV make a dollar bill appear inside a lemon. At 9, he began performing at birthday parties. “I got paid $40 and spent $55 the next day on tricks,” he recalls. His first job, after the Wharton School of Business and the London School of Economics, was as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Glenn. He later worked as a strategic consultant to presidential campaigns, including those of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino and Barack Obama. He started practicing magic again on the campaign trail, killing time between speeches — and, he recalls, astounding the normally unflappable Obama by turning five $1 bills into $100 bills.
He honed his craft by apprenticing with famed magician Jeff McBride, who suggested that he start a monthly show in Washington. And, abracadabra, Washington Magic was born. All the 2018 shows sold out, and Morey and Recine plan to engage a rotating cast of guest magicians in the future. The performers will see the set list just 10 minutes before the show, “so they’re fresh and on their toes,” Morey explains. “I learned that from Springsteen.”
And, as the Boss knows, you gotta play to your crowd. This being D.C., it’s no surprise that when Morey goes around the room correctly guessing the luminaries, living or dead, whom audience members would most like to have over for dinner, many of the choices are people like Golda Meir and Millard Fillmore.
Then Morey points to a man at a back table. “Watergate,” he says, as if reading the fellow’s mind. People shift in their chairs to get a better look. “I want to know,” says the man, “if Richard Nixon knew about the break-in in advance.” The room erupts in laughter. “We’ll never know,” Morey says, chuckling.
“I know,” the man replies teasingly. It’s possible that he may just have something up his sleeve. This is Washington, after all, and politics, Morey says afterward, “is just about the biggest magic show there is.”
Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.