Magicians—they don’t get respect. Dennis Watkins, professional Harry Houdini and now first-time playwright with “The Magnificents,” the House Theater’s fifth-season opener, is determined to change that. And while I admired this attempt to lace a series of fun and undeniably entertaining miniature magic shows with gravitas, the results are at best a mixed bag of tricks. Yet what a cool bag of conjuring tricks they are! Three little red balls and wooden cups are used for some sensational sleight-of-hand sequences. Routine card tricks are anything but. Familiar classics like the orange, lemon and egg canary are lovingly evoked. Bodies are sawed in half, caskets levitate and a “clown chorus” of three House veterans help move along the action (sometimes literally, as when they magically unfurl designer Collette Pollard’s giant dollhouse of a unit set). Unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, the show—based on the playwright’s experience with his late grandfather, also a respected magic man—concerns an ailing old magician (Watkins), his sweet and uncomplicated wife (Marika Mashburn) and the young boy they befriend (Tommy Rapley) who is dazzled by the white-haired wizard and to whom he apprentices himself briefly before the old man’s untimely passing. There is little dialogue and much of the storytelling is accomplished via the House actors’ highly emotive facial expressions and trademark physicality. Particularly entertaining is Mashburn and her turn as an Edith Bunker-esque loveable dingbat of a wife limited to nonsense dialogue comprised of Yiddish, Russian and English gibberish. The result of this dramatic admixture is a show from which, when you’re not being happily distracted by the magic and multimedia (there is sophisticated use of video and cartoons), you contemplate some interesting themes: the life of an under-appreciated magician; the value of mentorship; magic as a dying craft; the struggle to introduce wonder and whimsy into a cynical world. A tighter focus on the narrative, a stronger script and a brisker pace—House company member Molly Brennan directs for the first time—would have more satisfactorily explored these rich themes and better justified the reason for this sentimental tribute to Watkins’ grandfather/magical concept show. For Watkins, each performance of “The Magnificents” must offer one last chance to spend time with the memory of his grandfather. For the audience, it should have been a better opportunity to get to know him in the first place. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At the Viaduct, 3111 N. Western, (773)296-6024. This production is now closed.