In the genteel Mayflower Hotel, where J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson often ate dinner alone together, Mark Phillips and Ryan Phillips are engaged in a magic duel. By “magic duel” I don’t mean one like Doctor Strange had with Kaecilius, so don’t worry about thunderbolts whizzing past your head. I mean two men who have mastered the art of deception, in competition for your approval.
We are sitting in a nondescript ballroom in the Mayflower’s lower level, in modestly-cushioned seats, on flat ground. The visible portion of the stage is perhaps twenty-five feet wide and eight feet deep; there is a pedestal in the middle, with something on it covered by a drape. Mark Phillips occasionally paces from backstage into the room, brow furrowed in concentration. Ryan Phillips is nowhere to be seen.
Mark Phillips, whose Fringe show A Gentleman and a Liar won John Bavoso’s approval in his DCTS review, wears one of those moustaches that curl up at the ends and require moustache wax in addition to a full beard, so you know instantly that there is no over-the-top for him. Ryan Phillips comes off as Clark Kent’s snarky younger brother, a young man in bow tie and, astonishingly, spats. They make nasty witticisms about each other — Ryan is a little better at this — much in the way that prizefighters will talk trash to each other to hype our interest. And then comes the main event.
The Magic Duel closes January 25, 2020. Details and tickets
The duelists each take their best shot in various categories of magic — card tricks, kid’s magic, and so on — much as the contestants in the Great British Baking Show have to prove their expertise in a variety of special bakes. Without going on at much length about the specific exhibitions of magic — that would kind of spoil it, wouldn’t it? — I must tell you that both of these guys are quite good. I sat on the middle aisle in the second row, and I had no clue how either of them were performing their magic.
OK, I’ll tell you about some of what they were doing. Ryan Phillips demonstrated the Chinese Ring trick, in which six large silver rings, entirely discrete from each other, somehow become interlaced and, within seconds, separated from each other. All right, that might be because of some special feature of the rings — some tiny pathway which allowed them to fit within each other, although I stared right at them and couldn’t see anything. But, pray tell, how did Mark Phillips accomplish the same thing with three wedding rings collected from the audience?
If you’re saying “confederate” (or “three confederates”) I’m feeling you, brother, but if that was the case nearly everybody in the audience was a confederate, which would have been tough on the gate receipts. The show relentlessly accepts audience “volunteers” (some volunteered by their spouses) to participate in card tricks, coin tricks, disappearing stuff, reappearing stuff, and the like. If you are a skeptic, you should volunteer. There will be no dearth of opportunities. And my guess is that you will return to your seats muttering, and perhaps amazed.
No trick was more amazing than the one in which the volunteer, shielded from the magicians, (at this point working in tandem) sketched an object, shielded from the magicians, while Ryan sketched, also shielded from her. I searched the stage in vain for a reflective surface which might have transmitted the volunteer’s whiteboard to the magician. When they both presented sketches with the same image there was a collective intake of breath, which did not compare with what happened next (which I dasn’t reveal). The volunteer may have been a confederate, but there were so many mindreading tricks that I can’t possibly explain them all away with a confederacy theory.
At the intermission, we were encouraged to vote for one magician or the other via our cell phone, and at the show’s end Mark was announced the winner. Your result might vary, of course — though I doubt it, since Mark’s daughter Sabrina is in charge of the vote-counting.
There is no such thing as magic, of course, so what this show demonstrates is sleight of hand, deception — theater. Phillips and Phillips are athletes, whose skill at making objects disappear or reappear could be compared to Anthony Rendon’s ability to smash a baseball a nanosecond before it lands in the catcher’s mitt. And your willingness to accept what you see serves you well in a magic show like this — just as your willingness to imagine, for a space in time, that Craig Wallace is actually Willie Loman, and we are in the late forties.
I have heard that outside of Las Vegas, Washington has more professional magic shows on any given day than any city in America. This is strangely believable. After all, the White House is making our future disappear.
The Magic Duel, co-created and featuring Mark Phillips and Ryan Phillips . Reviewed by Tim Treanor