The first time Derek DelGaudio performed at the Geffen Playhouse — in the 2012 show "Nothing to Hide," which he created with co-star Helder Guimarães and director Neil Patrick Harris — DelGaudio ended up staying longer than expected: The magic act, originally slotted for a one-month run, packed the house for 18 weeks.
Now DelGaudio is back at the Geffen with a new solo show, "In & Of Itself." If its starry creative team, which includes Frank Oz as director and Mark Mothersbaugh as composer, isn't sufficient enticement to fill seats, DelGaudio has a secret weapon: At every performance, he asks a member of the audience to return the next night.
On Wednesday night, when he made this surprising request, it wasn't immediately clear that he was serious, and a long, awkward pause ensued. But a woman did volunteer. "I'll call you Miss Tomorrow," DelGaudio said. "Miss Tomorrow, meet Miss Yesterday," he added, as the lights came up on the volunteer from the previous performance.
If people keep making good on their promises, then every show is guaranteed at least one audience member. It's clever thinking, from a box-office perspective, but in this case it probably isn't necessary: "In & Of Itself" is such an unexpected puzzle of a show, such an eclectic collection of stories, confessions, illusions and tricks — several truly dumbfounding — that audience members will want to come back anyway. And bring their friends.
DelGaudio, a two-time winner of the Academy of Magical Arts' Close-Up Magician of the Year award, is in his 30s but looks younger, with a round face and an aura of melancholy, like the lonely child who figures in the bittersweet, deeply personal anecdotes he weaves among his machinations. He's often self-deprecating, even hangdog.
"Was that ... good?" he hesitantly asked Miss Yesterday, as she described the previous performance. But his air of vulnerability can't entirely hide the swagger common to people who make their living by astonishing others. You can tell he really knows it was good. When he does live card tricks, projected in close-up on the back wall, his hands are so deft and lyrical they look almost smug. After the first trick left the audience in stunned silence, DelGaudio retorted tartly, "Miss Tomorrow, please note that they didn't applaud there."
The show, proceeding in unpredictable directions, has a quirky, grab-bag feel that is at once attractive and a bit unsatisfying. The set (no designer is credited) has a back wall with cut-out windows containing arcane props, which DelGaudio proceeds to use one by one. It's clearly all scripted, and he isn't just winging it (by the way, keep an eye on those windows). But as in a promising but underwritten college paper, DelGaudio announces large and portentous themes — the weight of secrets, the fragility of identity — but could use some more supporting evidence and a stronger concluding paragraph to tie everything together.
Before the show, everybody is asked choose a card describing how they would like to be seen. The options range from silly ("I am a space cowboy") to acerbic ("I am an ex-wife") to earnest ("I am a filmmaker"). On Wednesday night, DelGaudio seemed to know which card each audience member had chosen — except one. When he got to me, he did a double-take and then declared me "a mortgage broker."
Although I had not in fact chosen the mortgage broker card, in light of the questions this show raises about how identity is felt, expressed and perceived, I can't help wondering whether DelGaudio slipped up or — maybe something else was going on? Maybe he saw the real me, the Margaret nobody else has ever recognized, and that Margaret is, against all odds, a mortgage broker? I have never been able to balance my checkbook, yet my cache of Google searches now includes the phrase "how to get a mortgage broker license." Before I enroll in the class, though, I'll see "In & Of Itself" again, just to be sure.
"In & Of Itself," Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 26. $100-$150. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour.