“Spiritualism” may not be the first word to spring to mind when master illusionist/escape artist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson-creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are mentioned, but it is precisely this fascinating but lesser-known aspect of the two men’s lives on which playwright Gene Franklin Smith has based his World Premiere drama Flim Flam: Houdini And The Hereafter, now entertaining and elucidating audiences at Malibu Playhouse.
Smith does get things started with a glimpse of two of Houdini’s most famous feats, reminding us what made Harry famous the world over, as Houdini manages first to wriggle himself free from a straightjacket, then magically “metamorphizes” from his own body to that of his wife (and lifelong assistant) Bess, the pair of feats provoking audience oohs and aahs before Flim Flam launches into its tale of two men at odds over the possibility of contact with the dearly departed.
Both Houdini and Conan Doyle had suffered irreparable losses during the 1910s, Harry’s beloved mother Cecilia having passed away in 1913 at the age of 72 and Sir Arthur’s 25-year-old son Arthur having lost his life in 1918 at the tail end of WWI—deaths that sent Houdini and Conan Doyle on spiritual quests resulting in two quite different conclusions.
Whereas Harry ended up convinced that séances and mediums and supposed contact with the dead were nothing but balderdash and set about making it his mission to prove just that, Sir Arthur became spiritualism’s most impassioned proponent, making it his mission to convince Harry that it was in fact possible to communicate with those passed on to the next life.
Flim Flam: Houdini And The Hereafter zeroes in on the brief period in the summer of 1922 during which Houdini and Conan Doyle teamed up on a Scientific American magazine panel investigating the possible fraudulence of (among others) self-declared psychic medium Mina “Margery” Crandon, herself determined to prove that she could indeed make contact with the dead.
A couple of apparent encounters with the deceased Cecilia Weisz would seem to back Sir Arthur’s staunch belief in their veracity. First, Conan Doyle’s wife Lady Jean’s writing hand appears possessed by the spirit of Hungarian-born Mama Houdini. Later, a séance has Margery seeming to channel Houdini’s mother as objects levitate, tables shake, and voices call out from the great beyond—or do they? Is Margery the authentic medium she claims to be, or is she being manipulated by an opportunistic husband?
Playwright Smith has clearly done his research, the result of which is a play that not only entertains and informs but is likely to set audiences to doing their own Houdini/Conan Doyle wikipedia-ing, as it did this reviewer.
Under Thomas James O’Leary’s assured direction, a cast of six do all-around fine work, beginning with Rick D. Wasserman, whose Harry may be a hunk more handsome (and a few inches taller) than his real-life counterpoint, but possesses the acting chops to make us believe. (What we don’t believe are the script’s “short” jokes, since Wasserman’s Harry is every bit as tall as almost everyone else.)
Melissa Kite is a ball of fire as Bess, feisty, fuming, and frequently flying three sheets to the wind on booze. Antaeus Company treasures Peter Van Norden and Gigi Bermingham make for a splendid pair of Conan Doyles, their upper-class English manners a nifty counterpoint to Harry and Bess’s bolder, brasher American selves. Sabra Malkinson effectively distinguishes between a wife cowed by an unscrupulous louse of a spouse and a woman confident of her abilities to communicate with the dead. Cameron Mitchell, Jr. completes the cast as an appropriately smarmy Dr. Leroi Crandon (and don’t you dare call him Leroy.)
Magic consultant Jim Bentley deserves high marks for his multiple mysterious marvels. Music director Beverly Craveiro underscores the production with terrific live piano accompaniment throughout.
Lighting design whiz Leigh Allen’s vaudeville-style footlights and scenic designer Erin Walley’s imaginative velvet-curtained set and have an appropriately theatrical flair. Sound designer Greg Chun’s eerie effects are just right for the mysterious tale at hand. Claire Livingston’s period costumes are elegant treats as well.
On a less positive note, Malkinson’s gorgeous blonde mane is entirely too 2014 for an epilog set in the 1930s, making this reviewer wonder whether we’d time-traveled to the 21st Century. (We hadn’t.)
Cheryl Valice is production stage manager, Tiffany Towers is assistant stage manager, and magician’s assistants Erica Pastore and Nicole Surratt are in charge of props.
Flim Flam: Houdini And The Hereafter is produced by Julia Holland and Andi Howard.
It’s been fifty-one years since movie star spouses Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh brought Harry and Bess Houdini to the Hollywood silver screen, and with the History Channel miniseries Houdini set to debut this coming September with Oscar winner Adrien Brody in the title role, the time could not be more fitting for a fresh look at the man behind the legend. Stir in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock is still flying high thanks to cocaine, morphine, and those Robert Downey, Jr. flicks, and you’ve got more than enough reason to head up PCH for the Malibu Playhouse season closer.
Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu.
July 5, 2014
Photos: Brian McCarthy