Theater review: 'The Expert at the Card Table' at the Broad Stage's Edye
A magician giving away his trade secrets is as risky as a comedian explaining his jokes. Too much information and delight goes circling down the drain. But in the case of “The Expert at the Card Table,” the small, charmingly wrought theater piece in which the mysteries of certain card tricks are revealed, knowledge only increases our wonder.
This marvelous feat of stage manipulation, which opened Friday at the Broad Stage’s Edye in Santa Monica, is written and performed by Guy Hollingworth, an English barrister by day and ace conjurer by night. Formally dressed in white tie and tails, he makes a disarmingly polite and personable guide to a world in which the line between con artistry and actual wizardry isn’t easy to decipher.
Under the direction of the preposterously multitalented Neil Patrick Harris, a longstanding fancier of magic himself, this offering from London’s tiny but prodigiously fecund Menier Chocolate Factory begins with the book from which Hollingworth’s solo performance work gets its title. Published in 1902 under the pseudonym S.W. Erdnase, “The Expert at the Card Table” is a manual for conjurers-in-training that happens to include one of the most comprehensive treatises for card sharps ever written.
Milton and Samuel (better to learn their full names and histories from Hollingworth himself) are childhood friends who take their talents in divergent directions. Milton, taunted as a boy in Hartford, Conn., for being “ever-sickly,” is inclined to exploit his know-how for monetary gain, a path that leads inevitably to mayhem, madness and murder. Samuel, mentally and morally sturdier, recoils in horror as their adolescent chicanery begins to take a felonious turn in adulthood. He apparently writes “The Expert at the Card Table” as a retaliatory measure, a way of exposing the monster he helped create.
But is he really the author? The twists and turns of this nimbly sketched account make for a fascinating caper. Hollingworth effectively solves the riddle of Erdnase’s true identity, but it’s not clear whether we should believe him. The Internet swirls with controversy on the subject, and Hollingworth is so adept at misdirection that it’s difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
Good storytellers are, of course, good liars, but few can also make a mediocre poker hand transform before our incredulous eyes into an unbeatable four-of-a kind coup. Even Hollingworth’s supposed blunders when predicting the red and black pattern of an entire deck of cards turn out to be brilliant subterfuges. Amiably unassuming, he’s simply too sly for penny-anteing mortals.
Those in attendance who were invited to participate in one of his games had no luck outwitting him. Oscar winner Helen Hunt, seated in the front row at Friday night’s performance, brought her keen gaze to his little table but remained as delightedly flummoxed as the rest of us. Even when he tips you off to his secrets, his shuffling fingers are too wily to keep up with.
This intimate production, developed by Menier Chocolate Factory artistic director David Babani, is a pleasure to stumble upon. Harris’ tonally impeccable staging, featuring occasional projections that are as fittingly subdued as illustrations in a turn-of-the-century book, provides an eclectically uncluttered backdrop for Hollingworth’s uncanny gifts to dazzle. In a universe that values excellence in modest packages, “The Expert at the Card Table” would become the summer’s theatrical sleeper.
"The Expert at the Card Table," The Edye at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7 and 9 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 7. $35 to $60
(310) 434-3200 or www.thebroadstage.com Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Photo: Guy Hollingworth. Credit: Amy Graves