The Heath bar at New York’s McKittrick Hotel, home (a few floors down) of the immensely popular Sleep No More, has become something of a magical, mysterious Scottish haven.
First, the National Theatre of Scotland staged The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, an absurdist, time-traveling tale of an academic trying to resist the entreaties of the Devil.
Now, the handsome Scott Silven is hosting At The Illusionist’s Table in the same room. Cleared of all its bistro-y little tables, there is just one large banquet table, which seats 28 people, 14 on each side, with Silven sitting at its head and regularly patrolling its perimeters to talk to participants.
On the table there are guttering candles, and the room is lit by hanging lamps, which transition from blue to orange.
You take your seats, and Silven’s roughly two-hour show is structured around the dinner you have: the night I was there, a seafood risotto, roast chicken, and chocolate torte.
The food was delicious, and the last two dishes the subjects of two of the evening’s smartest sequences in very different ways. And there is whisky too, which comes with a pipette of water for each guest: It tastes delicious, and is another prop.
The illusions that Silven executes cleverly traverse magic and mind-reading, and maybe other things too nebulous for us mortals to know.
Yes, you will leave this show as you may leave a Derren Brown show, asking: How could he possibly have done this?
The other standout quality Silven’s show has is its sheer pleasantness—especially in a time when interactive, immersive, or participatory theater often relies on humiliation and that pit-of-stomach-fear that something bad or embarrassing will befall you. Silven wanders around the table, involves a broad range of the 28 people in the various illusions directly, and everyone at one point or another. Between courses, he disappears while we eat, so quickly it may benefit from a puff of smoke.
Instead—and who knows how much if it is true—Silven, who has a luxuriant head of dark hair and wears a non-distracting dark suit and open-neck white shirt, weaves a tale of his own childhood growing up in the rolling countryside of the Ochil Hills of Scotland.
It would ruin the show to reveal to much of what else he does and says, but the audience is encouraged to visualize things in that countryside, to feel the sudden weightiness of tree branches (and you do feel them, dammit). There is an amazing sequence where a whispered word that begins at one end of the table, ends in a final, very different word at the other end—and this too is part of a still-baffling illusion Silven executes.
He is, obviously, a wonderful storyteller, and so his own life becomes inextricably wound up in the magic and illusion of the evening. These aren’t the kinds of tricks where handkerchiefs magically extend into rainbow trains, or where flame suddenly appears out of thin air. He smiles and includes, he doesn’t set out to scare.
This is the kind of magic, in which suggestion is more potent than sleight of hand. Yet, you will also gasp out loud as people read out notes that appear to have been crafted for them; yet watch how Silven predicts which playing card you have selected.
He takes you, with your eyes closed, to a specific country setting, and the imagery he evokes there stays with us, from bonfires to sunshine and stones underfoot. This is not the Scotland of Trainspotting, but of babbling streams and isolated, rural delight.
There is no tension in this show, no high stakes, no peril, or dramatic twists to the tale: the show is as gentle as the amble in the countryside that Silven takes us on. It is not packed with incident, and its “wow” factor is as subtle and underplayed as Silven’s delivery. He wants intimacy and softly spoken “wows.”
The main course, if you have the roast chicken, will remind you of that forest gorgeously. And then the chocolate torte will… well, who ever thought that a chocolate torte could shock you as much as this one does.
Silven says throughout that some kind of fate has bought us all together. (Well, yes, together with a ticket booking system.) The thematic heart of his illusion is to show how connections occur and flourish.
It may be magic, or it may be a beneficent collective fate Silven somehow conjures into being. Whatever it is, it is both charming and gently astonishing.
A schism in feminism is the subject of Jonathan Leaf’s The Fight, a Storm Theatre production playing at The Grand Hall, in the basement of St. Mary Church on the Lower East Side. Leaf’s play is based on a personal and professional fallout between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and sets the modern (Steinem) against the old (Friedan) of the modern feminism movement. (For dramatic purposes the women are renamed Phyllis Feinberg and Doris Margulies respectively.)
Michael Abrams’ set is small and simple, evoking the offices of both women, as a young author, Caitlin (Laura Bozzone), sets out to find out the truth about what happened to votes that were due Doris at a key vote.
This may be lost in the mists of time (the modern part of the play is set in the 1990s, many years later, with Caitlin squirreling away to get to the truth and a name-making book deal), but in zipping between eras the truth is finally revealed; and that truth is bound up in politics, different beliefs, jealousy, and simple personal dislike.
Leaf skillfully parses the cultural differences between the women; Doris insists she is not anti-gay, when everything she says or does would imply that she is, while Phyllis’ silky sophistication hides its own ugliness and past pains.
The acting company, which includes Matthew Provenza and Mark Quiles as the various men in the women’s lives, are all subtly excellent, and director Peter Dobbins makes the most of a very small space.
All three lead characters are out for their ends and to burnish their own accomplishments, and they all believe in what they believe in passionately. Leaf not only suggests that idealism and ambition can co-exist, but how one can energize and corrupt the other. This echoes resonantly, and literally, in the basement of St. Mary’s.
At The Illusionist’s Table is at the McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th St., NYC. Book tickets here through Jan. 14, 2018. The Fight is at The Grand Hall, 440 Grand St., NYC, until Nov. 18. Details here.