(The post appeared first in The New York Times, 5/15; photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
Before my scheduled preview performance of “The Present,” a new show from the Geffen Playhouse (rebranded as Geffen Stayhouse) in Los Angeles, I received — via FedEx, after a failed delivery from the Postal Service and a series of increasingly panicked emails — a letter with strict instructions. I was to download Zoom and join a meeting 15 minutes before showtime. There would be, bold type informed me, “no late seating.”
On Wednesday, just shy of 11 p.m. (the perils of seeing a California show on New York time), an enthusiastic stage manager checked me in and I took my seat — a rickety Ikea chair in kicking distance of a teetering pile of laundry. My husband sat nearby on the edge of an unmade bed strewn with children’s toys. I had meant to pour a glass of wine, but we’d emptied the last bottle days ago.
“The Present,” created by the Portuguese conjurer Helder Guimarães, is a magic show, and I struggle to imagine a setting and sobriety level less conducive to enchantment. But this is a pandemic. As with bandanna masks and homemade hand sanitizer, we make do.
David Copperfield disappearing the Statue of Liberty and the peculiar success of Criss Angel notwithstanding, magic has always struck me as particularly dependent on liveness — a duel between the nothing-up-my-sleeves hand and the watchful, untrained eye. Put a camera between them, and the odds no longer seem fair. (Video sequences in live shows can feel miscalculated, too, a wrongheaded attempt to scale up what should be intimate, a tryst dressed up as an orgy.)
But last year, while researching the psychological illusionist Derren Brown, I lost several nights, happily, to his old TV series. And routines by the card assassin Ricky Jay — that watermelon! — bear watching on repeat. Knowing remote prestidigitation could work, I spent the two weeks after booking my ticket to “The Present” lurking and squinting and nervously participating online and on the phone, exploring how. The magic word of the moment? Your Wi-Fi login.
I began with Noah Levine, a familiar face beneath a quarantine beard. In “the before” (is that what we’re calling it?), I had twice seen his “Magic After Hours” show at Tannen’s Magic. With the help of the Atlas Obscura and Airbnb platforms, he has now developed “Backstage With a Magician,” in which he promises to perform tricks from his “secret lair,” which looks a lot like a Brooklyn apartment. At showtime, he greeted us in front of a credibility bookcase — “Gravity’s Rainbow,” manuals on card and coin magic, a crystal ball. He has taken to wearing a Nehru jacket. We cope however we can.