Last night I had the pleasure of attending a reading of Trumpets and Table Tipping, a new Houdini play by magician and author Charlie Mount. The reading was held at Theatre West in North Hollywood (near Universal Studios) and is part of the Theatre West New Works Play Festival 2023.
I've seen a fair amount of Houdini plays in my day, and this was certainly among the best. Even though this was just a reading (with the actors lined up on stage at podiums), the performers gave it their all, and the storytelling was vivid enough that I feel like I "saw" a full production.
The story is set at the home of the fictional Kathleen D'Arcy in Sleepy Hollow, New York, in 1913. Kathleen is suffering from tuberculosis and has engaged a famous medium to contact her recently deceased husband, Gabriel. Houdini and Bess are among the attendees, and Houdini must decide whether to expose the medium or allow Kathleen to find her final peace in his manifestations.
The play is a true ensemble. Houdini does not dominate the action, nor does he try. Houdini's character is not aggressive or bombastic as he's so often portrayed on stage and film. He quietly watches the proceedings, but when he does choose to act or interject, its a show stopper. His great intelligence trumps his ego, and you really get a sense this is what it would be like to have Houdini in your home. Credit to actor Nick McDow Musleh who gives Houdini quiet power and gravitas. Even bearded, you can see the real Houdini in his eyes and performance.
However, it's the treatment of Bess that, for me, really sets this play apart. The program describes Bess as "burning with wisdom, empathy and intelligence," and that all comes across in the skilled and naturalistic performance of Samantha Layton Gregory. I've never seen a Houdini play that works so hard to present Harry and Bess as true partners. Here they really feel like a couple who have been married for 19 years and have performed together for just as long. Bess is an invisible force working several steps ahead of her husband, setting up the moves she knows he will make, even before he realizes it himself. There's also a world-weariness to them both that feels very honest. It was exciting to see "The Houdinis" up on that stage.
There's also some nice Houdini history woven into the narrative. Bess tells the story of marrying Harry in Coney Island, and of "Houdini" (she draws a distinction between to the two) conjuring her fathers's name on his arm. The play is set three months after Houdini's mother's death, and Houdini mentions having cancelled dates in Italy (nice research there). The Voisin gets a mention, and Houdini tells the "unlocked cell" story. We also get mind reading and a handcuff escape. While the play is fictional to be sure, it respects and stays within the boundaries of real Houdini history, which I always appreciate. Judging by the Q&A afterwards, the audience did as well.
All the other actors are excellent and every part is well fleshed out. Mary Elizabeth Somers plays the unfortunate Kathleen D'Arcy; Amelia Vargas is Eliza D'Arcy ("Inexperienced, but possessing a hungry mind"); Liv Denevi plays maid Noreen Corrick ("Outwardly brave but underneath terrified of something mysterious"); Benjamin Scuglia is Dr. Jasper Perry ("Irascible man of science"); Cecil Jennings is Jonathan Ruggles ("Brash and ambitious young man of industry"); and David Baer plays the bogus medium, Emmett Lee. They all made the reading come alive with their fine performances. I should also mention that author Charlie Mount, who read the scene descriptions, worked in a bit of spooky stage magic which the audience enjoyed immensely.
Having been so entertained by this reading, I can only imagine how powerful a fully mounted production of Trumpets and Table Tipping would be. Here's hoping one day we will see that!
Want more? Members of my Patreon can download a PDF of last night's program, which contains the proposed stage setting as well as Houdini facts and photos. Just click below.