By Toby Zinman
FOR THE INQUIRER
Sometimes you pick ‘em right, and sometimes you don’t. This was one of my don’ts.
I chose EgoPo’s The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini as one of my three PIFA recommendations in Friday’s Weekend section. Although I wasn’t naive enough to expect a real magic show on stage, I did expect some stage magic, and not a dramatized Wikipedia biography of the world’s most famous escape artist.
Created/written/directed by Brenna Geffers (who has repeatedly proven herself an excellent director and should stick to that), Houdini follows Houdini (Robert DaPonte) from childhood, the son of a failed rabbi (Tyler Horn) in Budapest, through his mother-obsessed, death-obsessed life. A self-invented showman, Houdini’s tricks were obvious flirtations with death, and he spent much of his later life trying to contact his dead mother (Maryruth Stine, who also plays a seductive, mean-spirited assistant) through séances. He marries (Lee Minora), partners with his brother (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen), and every setback in his career is illustrated by a punch in the stomach.
Part of the boredom factor, besides the plodding through time, is that DaPonte’s Houdini spends all his time glowering. As Geffers conceived him, he is an unpleasant, ostentatious man, lusting for money and fame. He is presented as a classic case of immigrant greed and unresolved oedipal neurosis: Why are those stereotypes interesting? The magician never emerges. The man, as well as the escape artist, is trapped in this dull play.
Since this show is part of EgoPo’s season-long “American Vaudeville Festival,” its acting style is all exaggerated burlesque. This makes for an intriguing possibility of turning the subject matter into a kind of tragic vaudeville, but it falls flat, because in order for tragedy to work, we need to feel sympathy for the characters.
If you want an imaginative, wild account of Houdini’s late performances, try E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, where all the haunted passion of Houdini’s intense illusions made his nerve-shattered audiences scream. No nerves are shattered in EgoPo’s Houdini — not even Houdini’s.