Believing Again in Magic
Albie Selznick’s Smoke and Mirrors reaches the child in this otherwise jaded critic
By Lovell Estell III
It’s two hours before curtain at the Road Theatre on North Hollywood’s Lankershim Boulevard. Actor-magician Albie Selznick is standing in the center of the small stage, transfixed in the act of spinning some solid metal rings around on a box. These are not garden-variety metal rings but ones that mysteriously interpenetrate each other — one of the many crowd-pleasers that are part of Selznick’s act in his show, Smoke and Mirrors.
He grimaces slightly when he fumbles but picks up the rings and keeps going, his arms and hands working with seemingly effortless precision. Lean and wiry at 55, he has the compact frame of a gymnast, the spry dexterity of a ballet dancer, and an infectious overflow of exuberance that is nowhere more apparent than when you engage him in a conversation or when he’s chatting up his audience. But what really taps you on the shoulder about him is his boyish face and smile, and the mirthful glint in his blue eyes, the chiseled expression of a mischievous imp that furtively hints of secrets known and kept.
It was a personal tragedy that set this self-described “nerdy Jewish kid” on the road to success as an artist. “I literally became a magician to sort of save my self,” he says, emerging from a moment of somber reflection. “My dad gave me a magic set before he died, and he died suddenly, and so it was my way to escape the sadness.”
As he grew older and became more adept at the art, Selznick formed a group called The Mums in the 1980s, which opened for Duran Duran, Devo, and other rock bands, even garnering the admiration of David Bowie and Andy Warhol. Then, suddenly, he gave it all up. “I got into acting, I just got more interested in it, and the magic took a back seat.” For the next 20- odd years he worked on building an impressive acting resume that includes roles in Suddenly Susan, NCIS, CSI Miami, and Cold Case. But four years ago he decided to return to magic, and he set about honing his skills and, more importantly, creating a project that tells why someone would want to become a magician. “To do magic while you are telling the story behind it is something I really like,” he says. Much of Selznick’s show is devoted to articulating that core element of his passion — the why. “Magic without a story is like special effects without a movie.”
A little over a year ago, I was assigned to review a performance of Selznick’s enchanting Smoke and Mirrors and didn’t quite know what to expect. Drama, theater, yes, but a magic show? I couldn’t even count the years since I’d seen one of those and was not enthusiastic about seeing a flashy display of illusion and trickery, an exercise of benign deception for the kiddies.
But to my surprise, there was drama and theater. Afterwards, the realization that something of far greater import had transpired during those 90 minutes. This realization struck me like an angry mule’s kick — that as I’d been watching the show in astonishment (along with an audience consisting mostly of adults), there was an acute, mysterious sense of childlike joy that had settled over me, an inescapable feeling of wonder, a reemergence of moments long lost in my past when there really was such a thing as magic.
After its brief hiatus, Smoke and Mirrors has returned and is now in the midst of another successful run at the Road Theatre through December 28, after which there’s unconfirmed chatter about the performance being re-mounted in West L.A. The show has been retooled and includes a few changes, not the least being some new guidance by the acclaimed director David Schweizer.
It’s nearing show time, and Selznick is busy backstage in the dressing room getting ready for curtain. His “Faustian laboratory” looks more like he’s preparing for a rummage sale: a clutch of colorful costumes, props of various sorts, bric a brac, a barber’s chair, and the standard make-up mirror ringed with lights. Most conspicuous is a cage with the doves that he incorporates in a variety of ways during the show. The birds are oddly colored and eerily silent — as if they are listening to what is going on around them. Also backstage are Albie’s assistants, Kyle Bryan Hall, Anthony Cosmano, Michael Helman, and the petite Laura Stahl, sans the red boa wrapped around her neck — an image from the show. (Stahl, among her other functions, plays Bess Houdini.) Exceedingly busy this night is stage manager Danielle Stephens, who does a bit of everything during pre-show preparations.
The personal leitmotif of Selznick using magic to cope with grief is what makes Smoke & Mirrors such a delightful and memorable experience. Selznick gently — and sometimes poignantly — takes his audience on a personal journey with him, one in which he morphs from a scared child trying to cope with the loss of his father, and using magic to do it, through his transformation to a skilled artist. Yet as compelling as the narrative is, nothing trumps the variety and astonishing performances of the magic acts.
Outside after the performance, two men are standing around talking about the show. One looks like a Hells Angels retiree, a middle-aged man with a dense beard a head laden with scruffy blond hair and thick forearms covered in tattoos. He says to a friend, “Some show, wasn’t it.”
I take a second look at the man and can tell by the way he is smiling that he, too, probably found and spent some time that night with the little boy inside of him.
Smoke and Mirrors continues at the Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd, N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 28. (866) 506-1248, www.smokeandmirrorsmagic.com