‘Flim Flam’ Closes Out Malibu Playhouse Season

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Rick D. Wasserman (right) portrays the famed magician Houdini in the Malibu Playhouse’s premiere production of “Flim Flam,” which was penned by Playhouse artistic director Gene Franklin Smith. Melissa Kite (left) plays Houdini’s companion, Bess.

Two legendary figures, one theatrical, the other literary, do battle in the Malibu Playhouse’s new offering, “Flim Flam,” that began a six-week run last Friday evening. 

The playwright is Gene Franklin Smith, who works double duty as the artistic director of the Playhouse. This is the play’s world premiere and marks the end of the Playhouse’s 2013-14 season.

The play’s principal characters are Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (played by Peter Van Norden), and Harry Houdini (played by Rick D. Wasserman), the famous escape artist and illusionist. They lock horns over the question of spiritualism: Are there spirits of the dead who can communicate with the living? Both men have beloved deceased mothers, and Sir Arthur, an ardent believer, claims he has spoken with his mother’s spirit. Houdini contends that spiritualism is a fraud (“flim flam”), but nonetheless earnestly wishes he could be reunited with his mother. The ultimate outcome of this true-to-life face-off is ambiguous. However, the play suggests that Houdini may have communicated with his mother, as well as his wife, after his death. 

It is 1922 and Sir Arthur is in the U.S. lecturing on spiritualism accompanied by his wife, Lady Jean, an occasional medium. Sir Arthur has grown so bored with the Sherlock Holmes stories that he refers to the iconic detective as “my albatross.” Sir Arthur is now devoting his life to proving the legitimacy of spiritualism. He and Lady Jean renew their acquaintance with Houdini and his wife, Bess, and Houdini joins him in an investigation of the authenticity of claims of mediums that they can communicate with spirits of the dead. 

Sir Arthur is seeking what Houdini says does not exist — a medium who is “the McCoy.” Since Houdini had made a career of flim flamming the public, Sir Arthur believes that if he can be persuaded to accept spiritualism the battle will be won. Houdini for his part relishes this opportunity to debunk it. During the course of their investigations they encounter a shady physician, Dr. Leroi Crandon, who manages his wife, Mina, a professional medinot exist — a medium who is “the um. 

The dialog is brisk and droll. The play is highlighted by interspersed snatches of Houdini, with Bess as his assistant, performing feats of escape and sleights of hand. They were baffling even to this reviewer sitting in the first row. The séances, in which Lady Jean and Mina purportedly communicate with the dead, are enthralling. Though Houdini initially views these séances askance, his skepticism gradually begins to erode. After one séance he cries out to Bess, “Mama was in that room!” Bess remains unconvinced, maintaining, “Anybody can fake anything.” 

All of the performances are uniformly excellent. Wasserman’s Houdini and Melissa Kite’s Bess appropriately reach but do not go over the top. They posture and flounce in a fashion consistent with the theatricality of their characters. But they also reveal their humanness in Houdini’s poignant longing for his mother’s arms and Bess’ simmering jealousy of her. 

Van Norden, as Sir Arthur, portrays the internationally successful author with the confidence you would expect. But he also exposes the desperation of a son seeking to reconnect with his recently deceased mother. Gigi Bermingham, as Lady Jean, deftly depicts the wife of the author with the hauteur of the English upper class. She makes Lady Jean’s transformation into someone who communicates with the spirit world all the more surprising. 

Cameron Mitchell, Jr. convincingly displays Dr. Crandon’s opportunism and latent anti-Semitism toward Houdini. His hatred of Houdini culminates in a confrontation in which they almost come to blows. Sabra Malkinson invests Mina, his wife, with the subservience demanded by her autocratic husband but becomes assertive and foul-mouthed when in the spirit world. 

The play’s many scenes move across the stage fluidly and attest to the direction of Thomas James O’Leary, a veteran of the New York and Los Angeles stages. The Malibu Playhouse’s curtainless stage challenges scene, sound and lighting design, functions ably performed by Erin Walley, Greg Chun and Leigh Allen. Claire Livingston designs the authentic 1920s costumes. The contribution of Magic Castle’s Jim Bentley as the production’s magic consultant is strikingly evident. Beverly Craveiro at the piano sets the mood with music of the 1920s. The producers are Julia Holland and Andi Howard. 

“Flim Flam” runs until Sunday, August 3, 2014, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at www.malibuplayhouse.org or by calling 323.960.7711. The Malibu Playhouse is located