The New Haven Theater Company has had a run of revivals, with the two most recent—Our Town and Almost, Maine—staged at the English Markets. Next month—actually, next week—finds them going for something the company, in its twenty year history, has never done: an original play. The Magician, written by NHTC member Drew Gray, was given a staged reading last August and is now ready for a full premiere.
The story of a magician, Mark Wonderton, working “the big time” in a casino on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the play is one of a trio of plays that Gray has written about three brothers—one a thief, one a magician, one a gambler—and, for The Magician, was drawn to the idea of a play that would portray a performer onstage. Thus the staging of Act II—when Wonderton is onstage—entails the interesting doubling that takes place when a play’s audience doubles as the audience to a show in the play. To that end, NHTC has had to find a few tricks up its sleeve in order to pull off some actual magic tricks.
“Some will fail,” Gray says, but the audience should have a sense of Wonderton as “a polished performer having a bad night,” rather than, say, a middling magician. One of the reasons for Wonderton’s lackluster performance of his routine has to do with his own crisis, another has to do with news of one of his brothers. In the reading in August, Gray says, most of the audience emerged from the experience feeling “the emphasis of the play” was on Wonderton’s reaction to his brother’s fate. For Gray, the story to be told uses that event as “an instigating act,” the catalyst that causes the magician’s state of mind, but not the dominant feature of the play or of Wonderton’s situation.
“There’s a different ending entirely” now, Gray says, thought the emphasis is still on Mark Wonderton as a guy onstage having to go on with the show though his heart isn’t in it. It’s a situation with interesting dramatic parallels to the situation of acting. Gray, who is also directing the play and is responsible for scenic design as well, does everything—we can say—but act. The Magician explores the plight of the showman stuck in his show, no matter what.
Much of the play’s success, Gray feels, depends on “educating the audience in the first ten minutes about what is possible and potential with Mark.” Act I is mostly backstage, a dialogue between Wonderton and his voluble manager, Ronnie. Gray has cast two of the more versatile actors of the company, with George Kulp as Mark and Peter Chenot as Ronnie. Much relies on Kulp’s ability to balance the unhinged qualities that Wonderton develops as the show goes on with the more staid and steadfast character that Kulp is a natural at rendering. The NHTC has a thing for dialogue-driven plays—the plays of David Mamet are a key inspiration—and The Magician is right up their alley in that regard with Mark and Ronnie trading off insults, wise-cracks, and comments on the state of the act and the state of their working relationship.
From an audience perspective, we may find ourselves hoping that Wonderton will succeed—after all, no one wants to see a performer bomb, not even if an actor is doing a good job of playing just that. Gray looks to “the unique experience of live theater” to provide “a true and interesting experience,” so that such tensions add to the play’s realism. The audience, like Wonderton himself, have to find out that “disappointment is acceptable.”
The Magician plays for the first two weekends in March at the English Markets on Chapel Street.
The New Haven Theater Company The Magician By Drew Gray Directed by Drew Gray
March 6-8 and 13-15 The English Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven