I'm always a bit nervous when I get the opportunity to see the world premiere of a new, original theatrical work. Sometimes the experience can be delightful, and sometimes it's de-frightful. Just moments before last night's open dress rehearsal of Hidden Room's Invisible Inc., directed by Beth Burns, I had no way to foretell whether I would enjoy or abhor what I was about to see. On one hand, Hidden Room's last production, Rose Rage, garnered rave reviews and won B. Iden Payne Awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction for Beth Burns, and Outstanding Cast. On the other hand, Ms. Burns gave the entire audience an apologetic speech prior to the start of last night's dress, stating that what we were about to see was not entirely finished, some transitions would be muddy, and some of the magical illusions (more on that later) would not be up to par as of yet. Add to that the "this-could-go-either-way" plotline about a rivalry between two magicians in 1930s New York, and what you have is one reviewer for BroadwayWorld who was sturdily perched on the pre-show fence.
In hindsight, I feel that Ms. Burns's preemptive apologies amount to nothing more than a magician's tried and true methods of misdirection and sleight of hand. While there are still a few kinks in the material, Invisible Inc. is a must-see production of an engrossing and enchanting new play.
The comedic play follows the story of Sebastian Topflyte (Robert Matney), a consummate showman whose magic act is rooted in grand, dazzling, almost vaudevillian style. Topflyte's magic troupe, Invisible Inc., features a motley crew of performers and friends: his mentor, Doc Isoceles (Todd Kassens), his beautiful assistant, Ladyfingers (Liz Fisher), and a wisecracking magician, Question Mark (Laurence Pears). The troupe is on the top of their game until threatened by the impending success of one Cord McCade (Joseph Garlock), a struggling but talented new magician. When Topflyte's niece disappears at McCade's show, the rivalry becomes interlaced with danger and mystery.
While as mentioned above, the plot could easily be either engaging or enraging, the new work by playwright Paul Menzer is, for the most part, quite strong. The characters and setting are interesting, the dialogue crackles with wit and humor (a monologue about Houdini's weenie is particularly memorable), and the pacing is quick. Burns directs the play with the steady hand of a close-up illusionist, keeping the action moving along briskly. She smartly brings out the most basic attributes of these quirky characters-their desire to succeed, their fear of loss, their need to belong-a decision which humanizes the characters, highlights the drama of the piece, and keeps the show from hopping on the train to Campsville. While the play may involve magic, these characters are deeply rooted in the reality of the cutthroat world of 1930s New York theatre.
As with Menzer's script and Burns's direction, the cast here is extraordinary. Robert Matney easily captures the arrogance of a rich, untouchable star, but he truly shines in the few moments where he gets to be vulnerable and exposed. Joseph Garlock is a wonder as Cord McCade, the handsome but often dangerous and violent rival. Rounding out the stellar ensemble cast is the excellent Liz Fisher as Ladyfingers, the tough-as-nails magician's assistant, Todd Kassens as the loveable Doc Isoceles, and scene-stealer Laurence Pears as Question Mark, an amiable smart-ass who grimaces at the mention of a woman being sawed in half. ("It's 'halves!'" he exclaims).
Invisible Inc. is also buoyed by some incredible technical artists. Jamie Urban's costume designs are gorgeous, particularly those worn by Ms. Fisher, the set by Ia Enstera is spectacular, eye-catching, and lush, and the original score by Graham Reynolds livens up the scene changes nicely. But of the technical artists involved, the show's magical consultant JD Stewart is the stand-out. The tricks and illusions he's incorporated into the show range from classic parlor tricks to grand disappearing and reappearing acts that are absolutely baffling.
Still, with all that Invisible Inc. has going for it, there is one problem. There's not enough of it. At 90 minutes including intermission, the play simply isn't long enough. Invisible Inc. could benefit from another 30 minutes to an hour in which Menzer could further develop his fascinating characters, their relationships, and the puzzling mystery surrounding them, something I do wish had a few more unexpected twists and turns. While all of that may sound like a critique, I offer it as high praise for Menzer. There are many playwrights out there that suffer from verbosity who I wish would learn to put down their pen. I wish Menzer would pick his up again. He has stimulating things to say, unique characters to explore, original thoughts in his head, and dare I say it, more tricks up his sleeve.