Magic, mystery and double-crosses in ‘The Expert at the Card Table’

Cheating at cards can make you rich, but it can also get you killed. And though sleight of hand is a charming party trick, it can be a path to betrayal, disaster and death.

So says “The Expert at the Card Table,” a one-man play starring acclaimed British magician Guy Hollingworth. The show, under the direction of Neil Patrick Harris, gets its U.S. premiere Friday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica after a lengthy successful run in the U.K.

Hollingworth, his 6-foot-5-inch frame elegantly dressed in a tuxedo with tails, palmed cards and double dealt during a recent rehearsal while Harris fussed over details such as the moody lighting, the antiques-decked stage and the crisp dialogue.

“Just don’t give away too many details of how he does the magic,” Harris said to a reporter, wanting to save the intrigue for the play’s month-long run. It’s more exciting to just let “the master manipulator’s” tricks unfold.


No spoilers here.

“The Expert at the Card Table” is based on a book of the same name published in Chicago more than a hundred years ago that let the cat out of the bag about card sharks, scammers and prestidigitators. Because it exposed closely held professional secrets, it was considered fairly scandalous in the magic community. But its back story turned out to be even more shocking. Think a murderous version of “The Sting” tinged with “The Prestige.”

To this day, there are unanswered questions surrounding the book. Hollingworth uses some popular speculation about its origins to weave a tale of two scrappy friends from Connecticut who became accomplished hustlers and got swept up in violence as a result.

“The book is a great launching point for an old-fashioned mystery,” said Harris, a magician himself. “Guy tells these intricate tales with a historical slant. It’s like listening to a campfire story.”

Hollingworth, a lawyer by trade who’s been performing versions of the show he wrote for nearly a decade, weaves his own conjuring with the book’s subterfuge.

“There are two completely contrasting ways of using the same underlying principles of sleight of hand — you can con people out of money or you can charm them with parlor-style magic,” Hollingworth said. “You can use your powers for good or evil. I’ll show a bit of both sides.”

Though it has a vintage feel, “The Expert at the Card Table” will use modern technology in the form of an LED flat-screen monitor so that everyone in the audience can see Hollingworth’s nimble cardsmithing.

This production about gambling, fittingly, came together over a game of poker. David Babani, the artistic director at Menier Chocolate Factory; Hollingworth and assorted theater friends meet regularly in London for low-stakes cards over pizza and beer. They invited Harris to join several years ago when he was in town performing in the musical, “Tick ...Tick ... Boom.”

During those games — where no one dares to cheat — Hollingworth, Harris and Babani started hashing out a new incarnation of “The Expert at the Card Table.” After trial runs and tweaks, the show has morphed into what Hollingworth promised is “something the audience has never seen before.”

That it’s grounded in reality makes it all the more fascinating, Harris said.

“The majority of the story is nonfiction about these two friends, dueling magicians, who break apart,” Harris said. But, as with any good trick, “there are lots of twists.”