Monday, June 23, 2014

REVIEW: Flim Flam is for real

Houdini and Margery share a Master Mystery moment.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending the opening of Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter at the Malibu Playhouse in Malibu, California. Maybe I'm still under the influence of the champagne reception, but I think Flim Flam could very well be the best Houdini play I've yet seen. Not only is there a steady stream of insider references to excite the Houdini buff, but it's also a beautifully layered story of three couples struggling with their marriages amid fame and a world tumbling toward spiritualism as the answer to all things. Flim-flam indeed.

From the moment the play begins, it is clear everyone involved in the production has done their homework, and this play is here to celebrate Houdini, not bury him. During his introduction on opening night, playwright Gene Franklin Smith said, "The more you study Houdini, the more you discover that you don't know anything about him." We all know how true that is!

But it's clear that Smith has the fever, as he peppers the play with historical Houdini Easter-eggs. We hear Harry order Farmers Chop Suey; Bess gets stuck in the sub trunk (I missed her real-life line: "So this is how you try to kill me!"); there is a mention of Bess's niece, Julia, and a rub-down with Zam-Buk; the name Quentin Locke is heard (suggesting Houdini might have pre-visited Margery in disguise?); wax "ectoplasmic" hands are used to comedic effect; and Act 2 opens with a terrific silent movie vignette of Houdini and Margery being harassed by Dr. Crandon as The Automaton. This last bit I especially loved, and to coin a Houdini expression, it was here I fell back and proclaimed Gene Franklin Smith "master."

Rick D. Wasserman as Houdini.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)
Rick D. Wasserman is excellent as Houdini. He resists the familiar urge to play the escape king as an overly theatrical egotist, and instead gives us a much more accurate and very human Harry. Here we get a hardworking, showbiz savvy Houdini; a tactician and professional who is, nevertheless, wracked in pain and looking for a less strenuous way to evolve his career. His Houdini is quick witted and disarming with an easy smile, but still dominates any room he's in, despite more than a few jokes made about his height. It's always interesting to observe how an actor deals with Houdini's still mysterious voice, and here Wasserman creates a voice that has a touch of a New York accent, but also contains many elements of Harry's mixed heritage and experience. We even get to hear Wasserman sing "Rosabel" in a fine singing voice. Yes, Houdini sings in Flim Flam. Hello, money's worth!

Bess is a very important character in this play and she's magnificently played by the talented Melissa Kite. Bess is in her full "Champagne Coquette" mode here, and while drinking makes her quick tempered and unstable at times, she is still Houdini's rock of stability and frequently the only "sober" person in the room when it comes to calling out fakery. Kite as Bess is charming and witty and holds her own with Wasserman's Harry. They feel like a real couple. But the "spirits" Bess has turned to are far more insidious than those being channeled by Margery and Lady Doyle on behalf of their husbands, so the Bess of Flim Flam is also tragic. Again, feels true.

Margery channels the spirits.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)
Sabra Malkinson as Mina Crandon a.k.a. "Margery" is sexy, strong, charismatic, and even a little frightening. Her stage time is limited, but she dominates when present -- a force as formidable as Houdini himself, as it should be. Malkinson nicely channels Walter in her strong stage voice using genuine Walter dialogue, and her costuming (and lack thereof) beautifully reflects her complex marital situation -- she's both free and captive. Her Margery admits to using trickery at times, yet she produces phenomena that is unexplainable -- the same mantra as Harry Houdini. The play ends with a wonderful "what if" by having Bess visit Margery as a last ditch effort to contact her beloved Harry. It's an electric idea, but you'll have to see the play to find out what happens.

Cameron Mitchell, Jr. brings us a thoroughly oily Dr. Leroi Crandon, Margery's controling husband. Crandon is stiff and old-world by intent, and his open anti-Semitism brings an instant tension to his scenes with Houdini. As with all the women in the play, Margery is in a state of reaction to her husband's ego and will. But there is a very funny moment when Crandon has to correct his wife on the pronunciation of his own name -- showing that while he controls Margery as any wealthy husband would at the time, he doesn't have her respect or even full attention. Love it.

Peter Van Norden as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is spot on. There is a moment, beautifully staged and performed, in which Doyle explains how spiritualism allowed him to talk to his dead son, and in a flash we understand and forgive the naiveté of the creator of Sherlock Holmes. This is a man who finds comfort in spiritualism from the worst pain possible, even at the cost of his reputation. There is also a nicely staged scene at the beach in which Houdini and Doyle discuss the idea of suicide as "an answer." One wonders of they might have really had such a conversation.

Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle conjure Mama Weiss.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

Top-billed Gigi Bermingham as Lady Doyle is commanding and her scenes with Bess are particularly well done, and she also wears some beautiful period clothing. In Flim Flam we get to see the infamous Automatic Writing session in Atlantic City, and Bermingham eerily rolls her eyes into her head so that they flutter white. Of all the tricksters in this play, Lady Doyle seems to be the most insidious faker, but her motivations are the hardest for me to fathom. Of course, this was also true in real life (was Lady Doyle insane?), so all this all feels correct.

Flim Flam is an entertainment, not a history lesson, so there are moments of poetic license. We see Margery (successfully?) channel Mama Weiss, which certainly never happened in life. But this serves the story well and Sabra Malkinson's Mama's voice is as effective as her Walter. Perhaps the largest leap is when Harry lands on the idea of doing a spiritualist exposure act -- and does so as a broadly comedic routine with Bess as his partner. Not really accurate (his spiritualist lecture and act was deadly serious), but this was actually an inspired way to present this. Not only did it provide an entertaining and lively moment for the audience in a play that has a lot of talk about death, but it nicely reunited "The Great Houdinis" on stage and very efficiently motivates Conan Doyle's rage over Houdini's (comedic) ridicule of his deepest beliefs. Again, great work by Gene Franklin Smith here.

"The Great Houdinis" reunite to parody a seance.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

The magic was supervised by our friend Jim Bentley (who has himself played Houdini on-stage on several times), and in the course of the evening we get to see a straitjacket escape, Metamorphosis, the Spirit Cabinet, and a scarf through the neck (very skillfully performed by Wasserman). Also high marks go to the beautiful and historically accurate costumes by Claire Livingston, impressive stage design by Erin Walley, sound design by Greg Chun, and, of course, the magnificent direction by Thomas James O'Leary that pulls all this great work together. You get much more production value in Flim Flam than in many plays of this size.

My only disappointment of the evening? Where the heck was the magic world!? While the play was sold out, the only familiar face I saw was Jim Bentley. Listen up people; one of the best Houdini plays that's every been produced is happening right now (through Aug 3) at the Malibu Playhouse which, by the way, is a beautiful venue with the ocean right across the street. So pull your noses out of your Erdnase and get on over to the Malibu Playhouse and spend some time with the Houdinis (AMA members get a discount). This is a very special play and a terrific experience, and that's no flim-flam!

Cast and crew after Friday's premiere.

Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter plays through August 3, 2014 at Malibu Playhouse located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265. Tickets may be purchased through the box office, online at or by calling 323-960-7711.

For more information visit the Malibu Playhouse website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Production photos by Brain McCarthy. For more on Brain's work visit McCarthy Photo Studios.


  1. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniJune 23, 2014 at 1:54 PM

    I wish that the play would tour around the country. Hitting in Boston.

  2. Great review, John! I was out of town, but it sounds amazing and will look forward to seeing it.

    1. We need to gather together the regular suspects and head on out for a matinee or something. I mentioned this to Joe Fox, Lisa Cousins, and Pat Culliton at the Castle last night. Everyone's into it. Just need to arrange.

  3. Remember, we have a discount for AMA members!

  4. I was lucky enough to see this wonderful play performed in Los Angeles. Gene Franklin Smith has written a completely compelling and extremely enlightening story. His play deserves the accolade "mesmerizing." It is wonderful to be so entertained as one learns so much about such a fascinating figure as Harry Houdini.