‘A Simulacrum’ Review: A Magic Show in the Making, and Unmaking

Magicians often get a bad rap. After all, it’s a profession necessarily defined by deception.

But what are some of these untruths in magic, and what are they meant to obscure? That’s what the playwright Lucas Hnath and the magician Steve Cuiffo explore in “A Simulacrum,” a kind of deconstructed magic show that attempts to find the reality beneath the illusions.

At the start of “A Simulacrum,” directed by Hnath and produced by Atlantic Theater Company, Cuiffo strolls onstage to one of two large folding tables that are positioned perpendicular to each other. He puts down his drink and pops a tape into a cassette recorder.

It’s Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, at an East Village rehearsal studio, where Hnath and Cuiffo are workshopping a possible show. Rather, this production is a re-creation of that Aug. 10 workshop. (An author’s note in the script calls it a “stage documentary.”) Hnath is the unseen interviewer; his parts, questioning Cuiffo’s methods and history with magic, are culled from over 50 hours of workshops and interviews between them, and played aloud — presumably via the recorder. Cuiffo performs his tricks in person and acts out his side of the conversation, which has been taken verbatim from these workshops.

The second act of the show, which was commissioned by the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, replicates a workshop Hnath and Cuiffo had three months after the first, during which Hnath challenges Cuiffo to devise new tricks with a set of criteria that negate or undercut the illusion, polish and showmanship that typically define magic shows. The third act, based on another workshop a year later, reveals Cuiffo’s creations.

Cuiffo makes it clear that this show presents “presentational magic,” not “personal magic” — that is, the staging is more one-sided, absent the transactional element that comes with audience participation. It’s just an aside, but it epitomizes how the show moves, from a more traditional magic show format, with disappearing coins and autonomous cards that jump and flip on and around his person, to something more intimate.

Hnath’s blunt interrogations (“Where is Steve in this?”) and matter-of-fact reactions (“That’s it?” he asks after Cuiffo performs a card trick that took him 14 years to master), though sometimes difficult to hear with the tape’s poor sound quality, reveal an incisive thinker. That should be no surprise to those familiar with his work, like “The Thin Place,” a kind of ghost story, and “Dana H.,” another simulacrum involving a real, harrowing story about Hnath’s mother that is lip-synced to a recording of her recounting the experience. (It remains one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had in a theater.) And yet, at times this production too explicitly spells out his conceit, as when Hnath questions how much of Cuiffo’s magic is mimicry, each trick being a variation of a theme — yes, a simulacrum.

Ultimately this is a show with an intentionally self-defeating concept: One that breaks down the artifice of an art form by employing another art form that uses a similar kind of artifice to reveal some aspect of humanity.But there’s an occasional tediousness to this behind-the-scenes, making-of endeavor, and a few moments of built-in dissatisfaction, as when Cuiffo has to perform tricks that he knows won’t work.

An engaging performer, Cuiffo subverts the splashy style that many professional magicians are known for; he’s low-key, grounded in both his gestures and his manner of speech. And the difficulty of what he’s doing shouldn’t be understated: He’s not just repeating his part of the dialogue but replicating his pauses, cadence, emphases naturally and in sync with Hnath’s audio.

As carefully considered as this production is, with Louisa Thompson’s modest scenic design (two tables, an office-window backdrop) and Hnath’s cerebral direction, ultimately there is still the sense that something is missing: a deeper interrogation of Cuiffo and Hnath himself, something even more personal. We never get the full reveal.

What magic and theater have in common is the wonder, the spectacle that ironically sends you back to your reality with a new outlook. But maintaining the magic while showing your hand? That’s the trick this show hasn’t quite yet mastered.

A Simulacrum
Through July 2 at Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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