What are you most afraid of? Posing that question directly to the audience at the outset of his “Smoke and Mirrors” theatrical magic show at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica, Albie Selznick establishes the evening’s unifying theme: overcoming fear as a motivator for extraordinary achievement.
As an actor-magician, Selznick sports fine credentials in both domains — he’s a company member of NoHo’s the Road Theatre (which co-produced this show) and a lifetime member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood — although it’s predominantly his experiences in the latter capacity that propel this 90-minute semi-autobiographical narrative threading feats of illusion and legerdemain.
Without unduly compromising the element of surprise, suffice it to say up front that the magic tricks — whether transforming objects, levitation or demonstrating telepathic powers — are first rate, and executed by Selznick and his assistants (Brandy LaPlante, Rob Martinez and Bettina Zacar) with matter-of-fact assurance that belies the intricate sleights-of-hand involved. Selznick’s low-key, self-deprecating humor makes the wizardry all the more impressive. Under Paul Millet’s direction, tongue-in-cheek, spooky video and musical atmospherics further situate the presentation in the hip, self-aware magic realm.
What most distinguishes “Smoke and Mirrors,” however, is the personal connection that Selznick explores between his life and his art, starting with his turning to magic at age 9 to fill the hole left by his father’s death.
Donning mismatched pajamas and an embarrassing boyhood lisp to re-create his first trick, Selznick poignantly underscores his early attraction to magic as a skill that could be learned in solitude. His fascination with Harry Houdini’s promise to make contact from the grave, and the imaginary human-sized rabbit companion he conjures up as an assistant, further link back to the parental void.
His dad, a psychiatrist, inspired Selznick to keep trying to “magic away” his fears in a fear box — a recurring metaphor through the phases of his Magic Castle apprenticeship. Escaping the fear box also figures prominently in an audience participation sequence.
“Smoke and Mirrors” handily demonstrates Selznick’s conquest of his own greatest fear — being a nobody. Perhaps his greatest trick of all: making boredom completely disappear.
“Smoke and Mirrors,” the Promenade Playhouse, 1404 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 16. $34. (800) 595-4849 or www.smokeandmirrorsmagic.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.