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Theater Review: “The Elephant Room” at Arena Stage

Magic, mustaches, and zany jokes meet theater in this offbeat new show.

Louie Magic, Dennis Diamond, and Daryl Hannah in Elephant Room at Arena Stage. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

The Elephant Room, currently playing at Arena Stage, is kind of like the magic show your mom booked for your eighth birthday party—you know, if instead of pulling rabbits out of their hats, the magicians poured milk out of a light bulb, levitated a concrete block, and turned a doll into a bottle of whiskey. Following its debut at the 2011 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, the three-man production has taken its out-there illusions to Arena’s newest stage, and I’m not going to lie to you—things get weird. But it’s an enjoyable, laugh-out-loud kind of weird.

Actor-magicians Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic, and Daryl Hannah (no relation, he assured us with irritation) are the sort of mustachioed trio you might expect to emerge from a bitchin’ van circa 1978. Theirs is a world of tacky taxidermied pheasants, dim basement lighting, and background music that’s heavy on the synthesizer, and it’s here, for a little more than an hour with no intermission, that the performers achieve a strange combination of slapstick gags and genuine “How the hell did they do that?” magic.

With no definitive story arc, the action is one continuous sketch that spills, quite literally, in dozens of different directions. But Diamond, Magic, and Hannah, under the direction of Paul Lazar, don’t miss a beat. All three are given the chance to showcase their characters both individually and in surprisingly smooth synchronization. Diamond, who could be mistaken for Borat comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, might be the funniest of the bunch in his flashy brocade blazers, using expressive brows and mystical leanings for everything from extracting Kool-Aid powder from a prepared batch of the drink to a giddy late-night phone call to the Dalai Lama. Buckteeth and a shaggy blond mullet give Hannah and his impressive sleight of hand skills a certain trailer park charm. Magic’s shtick later in the show veers uncomfortably close to bad taste (molestation jokes and balloon animals are involved), but for the most part all the characters deliver.

The creed “A magician never tells” seems especially applicable here: Playbill biographies refer only to character names and personas, rather than actors, and a post-show appearance in the lobby features Diamond, Magic, and Hannah chatting with theatergoers completely in earnest. But a little online sleuthing would suggest Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford of the touring performance troupe Rainpan 43 and New York–based actor and magician Steve Cuiffo, listed here as the show’s “creators,” play a bigger role than they’re letting on. (Internet images also bear a curious resemblance to the three, sans theatrical outfits and stick-on facial hair.)

This isn’t the show to see if you’re looking for a quiet evening at the theater. The material is edgy, innovative, and often just plain silly, and audience participation makes up a good chunk of it (though several of the volunteers chosen seemed a little too in on the joke). Much of the performance feels like something out of Napoleon Dynamite, both in its straight-faced wackiness and improvisation and in its thrift-store aesthetic—everything seems to be coated in the grainy film of a vintage Polaroid—and the result here, too, is bizarrely charming. I left the theater feeling thoroughly confused, but also thoroughly entertained. And that’s a nifty trick.

The Elephant Room is at Arena Stage through February 26. Tickets ($40) are available through Arena’s website.