'Sleight of Hand' play

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Postby Guest » 10/30/06 09:36 AM

Can any magic completists help me with the following query?
Does anyone have a copy of John Pielmeiers play, Sleight of Hand, performed in the USA in 1988?
I only became aware of the existence of this play via Carlsons analysis of the postmodern comedy thriller.
Pielmeier is better known for writing Agnes of God.
I also have a copy of his recent stage thriller , 'Voices in the Dark'.
But Sleight of Hand appears to have vanished from print. AdAll books doesnt even list it.
Another question: Who worked on the stage illusions?

Here are two relevant extracts from Marvin Carlsons Deathtraps:The PostModern Comedy Thriller(1993):

A particularly elaborate case of a detective entering the "corkscrew" world of the thriller is presented by Sleight of Hand. Early in the play we are given conflicting evidence, both physical and verbal, indicating both that the protagonist Paul, a magician, has and has not killed his assistant, Alice, in a failed magic trick. A "detective" arrives with the news that Alice's body has been found and proceeds to interrogate Paul, but the detective's name, Dancer, strikes Paul as odd, not only because his girl friend is a professional dancer, but because of its odd echo at Christmas, when this play occurs, of one of Santa's reindeer. With all this onomastic foregrounding, the experienced viewer is doubtless expected to be suspicious of Dancer, quite possibly associating him with the memorable Detective Doppler in Sleuth who similarly arrives to question the protagonist about an ambiguous murder and who is revealed at last to be the presumed victim in disguise.
Paul becomes increasingly suspicious about the "real" identity of his guest, especially after Dancer draws a gun and becomes both more threatening and more irrational. "You're not a policeman, are you? Who are you?" challenges Paul, echoing the confusion of the audience. Dancer seems intent on some sadistic revenge for Alice's death, but his motivation and his relationship to her remain unclear. Trickery, disguise, theatrical turns, and imitation deaths mark the evening-long struggle between Dancer and Paul. The identity of Dancer remains unclear. For a time it seems he might be Alice's brother intent on avenging her death, a role highly appropriate to traditional drama. Later, he seems to be the new lover of Paul's girl friend, Sharon, at work to remove a romantic rival, a role often encountered in comedy thrillers. Not until the end of the play is the truth revealed. He really is a detective, and all the play's illusions and misdirections were set up, with Sharon's help, to trick Paul into admitting that he had indeed murdered Alice. "You should have believed the first thing I told you," "Dancer" observes, illustrating a point, made several times in the play, that the ultimate trick is no trick at all. In the subversive world of the comedy thriller, where the audience expects a norm of trickery, truth itself can be used to mislead, since it will be taken to be illusion. In this rare example of a detective achieving a fairly conventional triumph over a murderer, the means are totally unconventional. There is no careful interrogation, no examination of clues, no logical construction of the death event; the detective has triumphed only because he was willing to enter the murderer's world of disguise and misdirection and beat him at his own game. A similar situation may be seen in An Act of the Imagination, where Sergeant Burchitt exposes the murderer by engaging in just the sort of theatricalized illusions normally employed by the murderous protagonists in this genrestaging a false death with blanks and even rigging a special wall panel to provide a suitable bloody background for the false event.
Although Sleight of Hand is the only play here considered with a magician as protagonist, it is clear that the magician, as a performer, has a very useful affinity to the murderer in a comedy thriller and, by extension, to the author of such a work. Disguise, illusion, misdirection, and mystification are the stock-in-trade of all three. The relationship between the dynamics of the magic show and the thriller we are watching is constantly suggested, even if never openly stated, from the first line, delivered by Paul in an isolated spot: "I'm a conjurer ... I deal in illusions," to "Dancer's" final line, "no more tricks, the show's over. "

Postby Guest » 10/30/06 09:56 AM

The second extract is:

While Corpse! piles up false deaths with the kind of maniacal repetitiveness suggestive of traditional farce, Sleight of Hand offers false deaths in almost every scene, but in such profusion and variety that it might almost be called a set of variations on this theme. A brief opening scene shows a drunken magician, Paul, rehearsing the familiar swords-through-a-box trick, when blood begins to seep out of the box. "Oh, Jesus," he says. In the next scene he confesses to his girl friend, Sharon, that he has just killed his assistant, but when she throws open the box, it is empty. The story of the killing was only a trick to keep her at home. As she leaves in disgust, Paul threatens to kill himself, and indeed pretends to do so with a false sword. The audience, who almost certainly did not believe in the apparent death of the assistant in the opening scene, is thus confirmed in their assumption that the magician was simply playing another trick, as he continues to do throughout the play.
The major false death of Sleight of Hand double codes the by now well-established false death conventions of comedy thrillers, both following and parodying them, with a clear expectation of audience knowledge of and complicity in this process. After Sharon's departure, Paul practices several tricks, culminating in placing a rabbit in a press and apparently crushing it. As in the opening scene, blood seeps out, and as it does so, Paul's buzzer sounds and the speaker announces, "Police." A long scene, full of tricks and mental sparring between Paul and the mysterious "Dancer," who may or may not be a policeman, follows, ending with Dancer firing several shots into Paul's body and producing a satisfactory display of blood. Dancer then phones Sharon to say, "It's all over" and "I love you," and, with a final joke about the magic properties of the room, he leaves. Dancer's amusing final line, the revelation of the traditional triangle (the mysterious Dancer really Paul's romantic rival), and the first-act shooting, which an experienced audience will assume to be some kind of trick, sets up an act ending quite conventional for a play of this type, but Sleight of Hand surprises by showing that it knows that the audience knows the trick. Instead of dropping the curtain early to conceal the trick, as in Sleuth, the curtain is left up to reveal the trick as in Deathtrap, but with an even more conscious foregrounding of the ludic quality of the situation. When Dancer is gone, Paul reappears, unharmed and in evening dress, holding his equally unharmed rabbit, to whom he comments about "the illusion of life." His closing line is an invitation for everyone to go with him to the theatre.
The second act, which takes place at the theatre, begins with another echo of the opening scene; Sharon is seated in a spot-light, slitting her own throat, with blood running out, "Dancer," now revealed as Geoff, interrupts her rehearsal. Reluctantly, he tells her that their "joke" on Paul, turning his murder games back on him, went wrong, real bullets were in the gun, and Paul was really killed. She accuses him of attempting another trick on her. The audience knows that Paul is not dead, but this knowledge only produces new puzzles. Does Geoff really think Paul is dead, and if so, how did Paul manage to reverse the plot? Or does Geoff know that Paul is alive, and if so, why is he lying to Sharon? Early comedy thrillers often changed the traditional mystery question from "who done it?" to "did the murder really happen?" Then, as audiences became accustomed to this destabilization, the original question came back, on a more theoretical level, "given that the murder is an illusion, who is controlling the narratization of it?"
The final scene of Sleight of Hand suggests, on a grimmer note, the frenzy of illusory death that characterizes Major Powell's endeavors in Corpse! Both Paul and Geoff appear in and disappear from a coffin. Blank pistols, stage swords, and trick blood are all utilized in a series of "deaths." At one point in the theatrical carnage, however, Paul, who during the play has been providing a running series of "lessons" on stage magic, pauses to interject a grimly serious, as well as strongly self-reflexive, note with his "lesson four," which he calls "the dark side of the soul":
"People don't realize that magicians wish to frighten. We deal daily with death ... We delight in the murder as much as the resurrection. How close can I bring you to the edge without pushing you over? People pay me to prove to them that death is conquerable. But death is real and disappearance is pretend."
At this moment, Sleight of Hand seems to reach outside its generic playfulness to touch upon a basic truth about the appeal of all such plays, and perhaps, of all theatre. For a moment, we seem very close to Herbert Blau's insight that it is the deferred knowledge of death that haunts and fuels all theatre, all performance. But if "death is real and disappearance is pretend," the theatre remains a process for the protection of life from this reality by its obsessive deferment, repetition, and reserve. In the final scene of Sleight of Hand, Paul confesses that he really did kill Alice in the sword box in the opening scene. The most obviously false death of all was real. "I performed the ultimate trick," he boasts, "there was no trick." But the trick Paul plays upon Sharon, Geoff, and the unfortunate Alice is repeated on another level by the trick Sleight of Hand plays upon its audience, always the ultimate target of the murderer's illusions. Once the "false death" has entered the realm of generic expectations, as it has by now clearly done in the comedy thriller, it becomes as open to the play of a subversion as the "real death" of the traditional mystery dramas. "Reality" can be double coded onto "illusion" as easily as "illusion" onto "reality," when either can be anticipated as a codified interpretation. Although the entire middle section of Sleight of Hand is filled with trickery and surprise, such activity, because anticipated by its audience, proves, in fact, less surprising and less subversive than the beginning, where we see an apparent murder and a man who claims to be a detective who comes to investigate it, and the ending, where we find that our reception expectations have been mistaken because the text has, in fact, returned to the world of the traditional mysterya murder really was committed, the man really was a detective, and at the end, the murderer is exposed and arrested.
This does not, of course, mean a return to the relatively straightforward world of the "fair-play" mystery, since the final effect of Sleight of Hand is to suggest that that world is a construct like any otherplaying no trick is the "ultimate trick." As the calculating cardinal observes to the Pope in Anouilh's Becket, "Sincerity is a form of strategy just like any other, Holy Father. In certain very difficult negotiations ... I have been known to use it myself." In a world without ontological grounding, like the world of the postmodern, no transparently honest action is possible, and any "reality" may collapse into ludic misdirection and deferral. The conclusion of Sleight of Hand reminds thriller audiences, if they need reminding, that nothing, not even illusion, can be taken for granted.

Postby Guest » 10/30/06 10:00 AM

Can't get an answer for you today (atleast during the day), but I have lots of friends in various aspects of theatre (including teachers), so I will try to do some research on the play this evening. I'd not heard of it, but Agnes of God is a mind-blowingly wonderful play, and if the author of that wrote ANYTHING about Magicians, I'd love to see it.

Postby Guest » 10/30/06 10:29 AM

Thanks. I'd appreciate that.
I did track down a somewhat bitchy review by Clive Barnes.
Apparently Charles Reynolds was the magic consultant.

B'way Abracadabra
John Pielmeier's "Sleight of Hand" at the Cort, is slight indeed, but you'll want to keep your eye on the bunny
by Clive Barnes
New York Post, May 4, 1987
The new play "Sleight of Hand", which opened at the Cort Theatre last night, is certainly slight, but it is also, almost unexpectedly, handy-- for anyone demanding an undemanding evening of slick tricks, unsurprising surprises, and chill thrills.
This conjuring extravaganza of a thriller seems to have been virtually more constructed than written by John Pielmeier, and the story has as much literary interest as a card trick. Also-- beware-- the ending, as is the way of both unravelled thrillers and explained conjuring tricks, tends to flop down with the deflating air of an anticlimax reaching its peak.
Still, face it, flat endings are the price you pay for ongoing suspense, and even such redoubtable Broadway thriller-chillers as "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap" really had no more fizz at the end than old champagne. And Mr. Pielmeier is ingenious enough in his fashion. His hero is Paul, a magician, beloved of the East Side children's party set, with ambitions toward grander illusions. Sharon, Paul's girlfriend of the moment, whom he teases unmercifully with his tricks and perhaps-- who can tell?-- a hint of sadistic malice, is a dancer rehearsing an Edgar Allan Poe musical called-- what else-- "Poe on Toe".
The time is Christmas Eve, but Sharon has gone off to rehearse, leaving Paul in his loft with no one but his professional rabbit, Jabber. But then Paul has a visitor: a man with a gun and a badge, who says his name is Dancer, does not appear to be one of Santa Claus' reindeer, and claims to be a detective from this city's Police Department. Be that as it may; Dancer drinks on duty. So it's just as well that Paul has mastered-- among any number of spellbinding tricks-- a little one that miraculously pulls a White Horse out of a balloon; the White Horse in question being of course a bottle of scotch, which they both drink.
Now the plot muddies, and there are enough twists to make a corkscrew go straight. I will just let one cat out of the bag for the sake of the animal lovers: don't worry too much about the rabbit!
When Mr. Pielmeier, the author of "Agnes of God", started out, it seems likely that he had a more serious intent than that which eventually jumped out of his hat onto the stage. At one point Paul warns audiences that they are "too willing to believe in the benevolence of magicians; we want not only to mystify, we want to frighten". One can see that a Gothic tale might have emerged from a sadistically inclined magician; and that it has not done so here is, ironically enough, doubtless owing in part the the efficiacy of the magic tricks. You cannot take anything too seriously when you know that it is illusion. Thus what we have here is a vastly superior Doug Henning show rather than a macabre spook-out.
And mention of Doug Henning instantly brings me to the real hero of the evening, the magic consultant Charles Reynolds-- is there a Tony Award for magic?-- who, with the special effects team of Jauchem and Meech, gives the show its illusory backbone. Reynolds has in the past been consultant for such sorcerers as Henning and Harry Blackstone, and here he proves that anyone can be a magician, even the affable and clearly nimble fingered actor Harry Groener. Now Mr. Groener has never been a stage magician before, but-- presumably an unusually apt pupil, although I note he has an understudy!-- he can appear as miraculous a wizard as Henning himself. And a good deal more personable and convincing.
The script is continually promising to teach us magic, and to show how the tricks are done. Mercifully it reneges on the promise; but what it does show (almost as revealingly) is that anyone, perhaps only needing some flair for prestidigitation, can be a magician. While Reynolds could doubtless make a mini-Houdini out of thin air, with the dapper, engaging Groener he has had a major triumph, and Groener, if he wants it, has stumbled dextrously into a new career.
Groener's co-star, Jeffery DeMunn as Dancer, has not here found the vital role his vibrant talents need to confirm him as one of our most interesting actors. Still he registers anxiety and frustration rewardingly, and, under the direction and swordsmanship tutelage of the admirable B.H. Barry, fights a good fight with Groener. As the woman in the picture, Priscilla Shanks has the somewhat passive role of a lady being cut in half, but she endures everything charmingly. Walton Jones has directed the actors between the tricks resourcefully, and the scenery by Loren Sherman (particularly his second-act rehearsal set, with a beautiful Pit and Pendulum artifact) is most effective, as is the lighting by Richard Nelson.
Despite the absense of disguise-- sometimes regarded as essential to the genre-- I thought this was one of the best thrillers since "Sleuth" and last season's unlucky "Corpses".

Postby Guest » 11/07/06 05:41 PM

I assume this is the same play I saw on Broadway in the late 80's. I probably went with Mr. Kaufman one night; I believe he saw the show twice during the one week it ran. I also believe that Charles Reynolds was magic consultant for the show. Based on what I saw, and what Richard told me after conversations with those in the know, you may not be able to find a script. They were apparently using a new one each night during the one week run! The performance I saw made little sense, was quite short and just kind of ended.....Leaving me.....hanging....

Frankly, the most remarkable thing about the performance I saw was that the producers were able to raise the vast amount of money it takes to stage a show without having a final script. I'll eagerly await word of your search. It would be enlightening to see the script that got the investors to fork over their money.


Postby Richard Kaufman » 11/07/06 06:07 PM

I have absolutely no recollection of seeing the show! Must be old age. And it must have been very bad!
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Postby Guest » 11/07/06 06:54 PM

The original poster was given some contact information to directly pursue the matter with the playwright.

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