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Review: Crossword master David Kwong tries to turn puzzles into theater. It’s not easy

David Kwong in his digital show of many puzzles, "Inside the Box."
(Geffen Playhouse)

Puzzle master David Kwong, a designer of New York Times crosswords and a reverent keeper of the brainteasing tradition, makes good on his promise to offer a lot of “interesting and useless” information in “Inside the Box,” the digital show he created out of his love for word games.

This interactive offering from the Geffen Playhouse’s Stayhouse series on Zoom is an entertainment designed for puzzle maniacs. Kwong presides like the president of a club of slightly smug nerds. The competitive energy is palpable, as audience members shoot their hands in the air after solving one of the riddles that have been constructed for our cerebral delectation.

Kwong prefaces “Inside the Box,” which runs through Jan. 3, with a few words about the pandemic. Puzzles, he tells us, are a useful form not just of diversion but of connection. The Great Depression, he explains during one of his historical excursions, was when puzzles took off in America. Families stuck at home with little money and a ton of worries turned to games requiring mental agility to take their minds off their woes.

Finding order in chaos is the satisfaction of these tricky amusements, contends Kwong. Not all the problems in our lives are soluble, but at least we can be sure that these Fabergé enigmas have answers.

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Intermittently, Kwong offers brief snapshots of the founding fathers and mothers of puzzledom. We learn about such figures as John Spilsbury (the British cartographer credited with inventing the jigsaw), Margaret Farrar (the first New York Times crossword puzzle editor who refined the newspaper format) and of course modern-day maestro Will Shortz of New York Times and NPR fame.

But these potted histories have the generic quality of a student oral report. As a storyteller, Kwong settles for a passing grade. By contrast, Helder Guimarães was as entrancing a conversationalist as he was an illusionist in his Geffen Stayhouse Zoom magic show, “The Present.”

Kwong isn’t a natural performer to judge by this online presentation. He may have been more in his element in his pre-pandemic one-person show “The Enigmatist,” which was scheduled to have its West Coast premiere this season at the Geffen but had to be postponed until next year. Zoom adds layers of complication, forcing Kwong to contend not only with some theatrical inexperience but also with the varying sound levels and erratic internet signals of his participants.

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Don’t get me wrong: Kwong, a spiffy host with a bright manner, is pleasant company. But the games are the thing in “Inside the Box,” and your enjoyment of them will depend on both your aptitude and appreciation for verbal Rubik’s Cubes.

As someone who doesn’t start his day with a crossword or, heaven forbid, an acrostic, I felt as though I had wandered into a tribe of idle eggheads. I dutifully solved my pre-show puzzle that came via email with the packet sent by the Geffen and was eager to tackle the imaginative menu that Kwong had prepared.

For novices, the clues, involving scrambled phrases and images, may prove occasionally frustrating — at least for those who aren’t familiar with a tattooed food personality or see an aquarium and think “fish tank” and “goldfish.” The level of difficulty ramps up, and part of the fun is watching the quick mastery of audience members who are as adept at grasping novel rules as they are at manipulating spoonerisms (even when the audio is breaking up).

Unfortunately, the puzzles become logistically cumbersome as the 90-minute show wears on. Kwong would have been better advised to steer away from those games requiring over-elaborate instructions. One gentleman on the night I attended could be heard muttering near the end, “I don’t get what we’re doing.” I had figured it out but doubted whether the payoff was worth the dizzying setup.

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“Inside the Box,” which with a maximum of 24 participants per performance has been selling out, will tickle the frontal lobes of puzzle fanatics. But despite the cognitive cleverness, this unfailingly amiable show hasn’t cracked the secret code of theater.

'Inside the Box'

Where: Geffen Stayhouse virtual theater via Zoom

When: 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 3

Tickets: $75 per household (subject to change)

Info: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)


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