Review: The Magic Play (Goodman Theatre)

| November 8, 2016

The Magic Play review, Goodman Theatre           

The Magic Play

Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tix: $10-$40  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


World premiere full of jaw-dropping magic, distracting side stories


2 Brett Schneider and Sean Parris star as The Magician and The Diver in The Magic Play

Goodman Theatre presents
The Magic Play

Review by Catey Sullivan

If you’re a fan of up-close magic – sleights-of-hand that astonish without the bombast and massive spectacle of mega-magicians such as David Blaine and Copperfield – you’ll find much that’s entertaining in The Magic Play.

There is also much that’s frustrating about Andrew Hinderaker’s new drama, directed in its world premier by Halena Kays. The magic embedded in the plot is stunning. There is also, unfortunately, not enough of it. When the nameless Magician (Brett Schneider) makes cards vanish or reads minds, your jaw may well land on the floor in amazement. Schneider’s seeming sorcery will also make you wish that Hinderaker spent far less The Magic Play, Goodman Theatretime on The Magician’s relationship woes and far more on his mind-blowing works of prestidigitation.

Curiously, none of the characters have names in The Magician. If making all three men on stage nameless is a device to make the story more universal, it is not a terribly effective one. Naming your characters “The Magician,” “The Diver” and “The Father” also seems a tad pretentious. Using “the” before each descriptive noun makes it sound like these are the only three such people in the world.

That narrative centers on The Magician (Schneider), his troubled relationship with The Father (Francis Guinan) and his equally rocky romance with The Diver (Sean Parris). The Father is also a magician, a career choice that allows Hinderaker to make a one of the cheesiest, most obvious jokes ever written. Having The Magician acknowledge the travelling-salesman-level joke as a predictable, low-brow eye-roller doesn’t make it any less so.

The Diver is, as you might guess, a competitive diver, which gives Hinderaker dozens of opportunities to use diving as a metaphor for plunging into a relationship. As metaphors go, this one is about as original as the aforementioned joke.

Although the Magician’s relationships with The Father and The Diver form the narrative core of The Magic Play, they often come across as irksome interruptions to the real star of the show: Schneider’s prowess as a magician. Every time The Magician puts aside his deck of cards and launches into a direct address about his family/lover or an awkwardly connected flashback, The Magic Play topples like a house of cards.

2 Francis Guinan and Brett Schneider star in The Magic Play by Andrew Hinderaker, Goodman Theatre2 Sean Parris and Brett Schneider star as The Driver and The Magician in The Magic Play

That’s not to say Kays doesn’t draw top-rate performances from her cast, no small feat given how underwritten the three characters are.

Schneider has an amiable, warm presence that is crucial to establishing trust – or at least the feeling of trust – between The Magician and his audience. Trust is important in The Magic Play, especially in the numerous scenes when the fourth wall breaks down. With the house lights up, The Magician speaks directly to the audience about the tricky relationship between magic and trust. Magic acts are entirely predicated on trust, on the audience agreeing to believe that the performance is transparent and the performer isn’t engaging in shifty trickery. Without that fundamental belief, magic acts don’t work on any level. Schneider’s seemingly down-to-earth honesty goes a long way toward making you believe in him, even when you straight-up know for absolute certain that the cards must be rigged, and The Magician’s sleeves stuffed full with deception.

Still, not even the most engaging personality in the world can make The Magician’s exposition about his father and his lover especially interesting. In one scene, The Diver urges The Magician to show the audience the trick that “broke my heart.” The trick is harrowingly fantastic. Is it the harrowing heartbreaker it’s built up as? Not so much. The payoff is dazzling, but bereft of any emotion akin to heartbreak.

2 Sean Parris and Brett Schneider star in The Magic Play, Goodman Theatre

As The Diver, Parris’ character is about as substantial as a disappearing silk scarf. What makes him supremely memorable are the interludes when we see him on the high-dive, flying through waves of light rippling off the pool below. Aerial consultant Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi’s eerily beautiful choreography will remain with you long after the curtain call.

The Father is as underwritten as the Diver, but Guinan keeps the fast-talking, bargain-basement magician interesting. When we meet The Father, he’s working in the basement of a Reno casino next to a 24-hour buffet. You can almost smell the chronic, low-grade desperation of a man who will never transcend his own mediocrity. There’s tragedy and humor in a magician who has to hand out two-for-one buffet coupons in order to get people to pay attention to him. Guinan finds both.

The final scene in The Magic Play is by far the best; a showstopper with the power to elicit joy alongside tear. When Schneider stands before the audience in those last moments, the audience becomes a true community. That’s where the true magic in Magic Play lies: In Schneider’s ability to take a room of strangers and link them together. Compared with that truly amazing feat, The Magician’s relationships with his father and his lover are only distractions.

Rating: ★★★

The Magic Play continues through November 20th at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm & 7:30pm.  Tickets are $10-$40, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission. Recommended for ages 13 and up)

The Magic Play, Goodman Theatre

Photos by Liz Lauren




Francis Guinan (The Father), Sean Parris (The Diver), Brett Schneider (The Magician).

behind the scenes

Halena Kays (director), Lizzie Bracken (set design), Alison Siple (costume design), Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (light design), Christopher Kriz (sound design), John Boesche (projection design), Jim Steinmeyer (magic designer), Brett Schneider (magic consultant), Neena Arndt (dramaturg), Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi (aerial consultant), Kim Osgood (production stage manager), Adam Belcuore, Erica Sartini-Combs (casting), Liz Lauren (photography)

2 Francis Guinan stars as The Father in The Magic Play by Andrew Hinderaker, Goodman Theatre


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Category: 2016 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Goodman Theatre, New Work, Video, World Premier, YouTube

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