Before I moved to D.C., I was a personal assistant to the sleight-of-hand illusionist Ricky Jay. I was working for him in 2005 when he brought his one-man card-magic show to Studio Theatre. Bob Mondello, whom I didn’t meet until several years later, reviewed Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants for Washington City Paper, disclosing in his admiring notice that he was one of several audience members summoned onstage to watch Jay make cards appear, disappear, and change their faces from the best seat in the house. Mondello devoted his piece to trying to reverse-engineer what he called Jay’s “prestidigitory miracles,” using his advantaged vantage point to rule out marked cards or other, more outré explanations for the impossible deeds he witnessed. Ultimately, he threw up his hands, concluding that my old boss’ method was “magic, pure and simple.”
I bring it up because I was the guy with the notebook who was briefly drafted into a magic show last weekend. The consistently funny, intermittently astonishing Elephant Room takes us into the underground lair of “semi-pro conjurors Dennis Diamond, Daryl Hannah, and Louie Magic”—three lovable, unpersuasively mustached goofballs who otherwise bear a suspicious resemblance to Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford, and Geoff Sobelle, writer-actors affiliated with performance troupes The Wooster Group and Rainpain 43.
I take nothing away from the trio’s deftly executed feats of levitation, dematerialization (wherein one of them appears to leap through the torso of another, like the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde), and, ah, lightbulb lactation when I say Elephant Room is a comedy show first and foremost. There’s always more than one thing happening on designer Mimi Lien’s shoebox diorama-style cutaway stage, and the bits flow into one another gracefully, albeit with a lot of help from the cheeseball soundtrack of Alicia Silverstone-era Aerosmith and “Careless Whisper”-style saxophone. The sound design, of which the songs are but one part, goes a long way toward establishing an otherworldly vibe in the show’s concluding moments. At a svelte 75 minutes, it doesn’t overstay.
My selection occurred randomly: Diamond tossed a wadded-up likeness of the Dalai Lama—supposedly sketched in the grape Kool-Aid powder he had extracted, along with its purple hue, from a bowl of (liquid) Kool-Aid—toward the audience like a beach ball. It just happened to land in my lap. Darryl Hannah (not that one, pity) rushed to my side with a microphone to enlist me in a mentalism demonstration. From the stage below, Mr. Magic enjoined me to concentrate on a name, “maybe a woman you lied to.” Ouch! Flush with shame, I wrote her name down using a Sharpie and index card Hannah provided. I tried to keep him from seeing what I wrote though I can’t swear he didn’t, and I kept my gaze trained on his hands, alert for signals to his comrades on the stage. Maybe he had a fiber-optic camera secreted on the frames of his thick glasses; I don’t know. All I can tell you is Dennis Diamond announced the name of the lady I’d wronged in front of God and everybody, and I cursed myself for not just writing a fake name on the card.
I still have the index card, and the crumpled portrait of the Dalai Lama. It looks like it might have been screenprinted. I’m not going to lick it to find out if it tastes like Kool-Aid.