Throwing Plausibility Out the Window

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The New York Sun

Baby-blue tuxedo shirt untucked, deck of cards in hand, a bedheaded magician cruises the P.S. 122 audience and does a few tricks between swigs of Wild Turkey. The ladies in the crowd get a disproportionate bit of his attention (as well as the occasional kiss), but not to the point where the performer loses his touch. This dissolute fellow’s stage name is Great, and he is clearly a great sleight-of-hand man. He does not, how ever, appear to be a great guy – or even a particularly good one.

All this takes place before “Orange Lemon Egg Canary” begins, and the ensuing action confirms that hunch about Great (Steve Cuiffo). Just to be on the safe side, though, playwright Rinne Groff stops the show on several occasions to have three other characters – all former and current magician’s assistants – list for his (and our) benefit the caddish conjurer’s many failings.

In fact, there’s a lot of explaining in Ms. Groff’s intriguingly conceived but anticlimactic hybrid of magic show, twisty drama, and treatise on embracing the unknowable. The dictum “Show, don’t tell” is an inescapable mantra – and, in my opinion, a fairly overrated one – among playwriting teachers. But if any area of expertise absolutely required an emphasis on display over discussion, magic would be a pretty good candidate.

Ms. Groff, who has previously tackled such far-ranging topics as the invention of television and the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, starts out delivering on this score. The metaphoric chatter begins with Great’s opening “act,” an elaborate riff on the arbitrary line that audience members draw between what they see and what they expect to see. Lest this sound too abstruse (Chico Marx said pretty much the same thing in far fewer words when he asked,” Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”), Great then has cards and other objects “cross” the imagined barrier, to impressively transformative effect. Telling and showing are combined into a delightful whole.

In fact, the telling is a way for Mr. Cuiffo, a board member of something called the Conjuring Arts Research Center as well as an engaging actor, to appeal to the audience members’ intellect while simultaneously dazzling them. Misdirection is almost as useful for playwrights as it is for magicians, and with the help of director Michael Sexton, Ms. Groff does a fine job of it here.

Alas, not every bit of metaphoric musings – and there are many – lands with the same impact. Emily Swallow is given the most frequent and least compelling bits of theorizing as Henrietta, a ghostly narrator from Great’s past. (She was the assistant to his magician grandfather, who taught young Great the trick that gives the play its title.) As she swans around set designer Andromache Chalfant’s collection of show-biz detritus, Ms. Swallow is saddled with far too many speeches along the lines of “Our hearts are too old and too wise for lies, and lies are all that we want.”

If she’s right about that, the women of “Orange Lemon Egg Canary” are in luck. Much of the central plot involves Great’s relationship with a wide-eyed waitress, Trilby (Aubrey Dollar). Before long, the eager Trilby is forgiving his abominable behavior and learning the ropes to become his assistant. This last development comes despite warnings from the previous person to fill that job, a woman with a grudge and a few secrets of her own named Egypt (an amusingly wrathful Laura Kai Chen).

Egypt’s downfall – and the potential object of her revenge – came courtesy of the Hypnotic Balance, a dangerous magic trick in which the lovely assistant submits to Great’s power via hypnosis and is placed atop an enormous metal shaft. Any symbolic significance is not unintentional.

It is with this brazen metaphor that Ms. Groff’s command slips for good. The story, thus far a fairly insightful look at the deceptions that can both ruin and sustain a relationship, quickly devolves into a series of unlikely plot twists leading to a logistically unwieldy finale.

By the would-be doozy of an ending, plausibility has gone out the window, with little more than a belabored symbol in its place. The game Ms. Dollar has to deliver a major climactic speech upside down and several feet in the air, and the banalities of the final scene – “There are places on this earth where magic still exists” – sit uneasily on the edge of parody. (Ms. Groff had the opposite problem in last year’s “The Ruby Sunrise,” another time-shifting drama on truth and fiction; that one had a corker of an ending that almost but not quite redeemed the musty drama that came before it.)

Misdirection, the linchpin of any successful magic trick, hinges on the audience’s implicit knowledge that something really is happening – just not the something they think is happening. The only way you can safely disbelieve your own eyes is if you can convince yourself that the alternative is worth the effort.

The effort of doing that is just too great as “Orange Lemon Egg Canary” wheezes its way to its wet firecracker of a finale (one that generated its share of giggles at a recent performance). Once again, Ms. Groff is unafraid to apply her wry intelligence and diverse interests to an obscure piece of subject matter. This time, though, there’s not enough left up this intriguing playwright’s sleeves by the end.

Until July 30 (150 First Avenue at 9th Street, 212-477-5288).

The New York Sun

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