Review by Brittany Crowell
Most people have been to a magic show. There is a reason that magic is described as “smoke and mirrors.” Magicians are often depicted in big capes with top hats and gloves, all frills and distraction, and their magic relies heavily on spectacle, sleight of hand, tricking the audience, and presenting a simulacrum.
For those of you who don’t know what a simulacrum is, it’s an image or a representation: a model of something bigger, a portrait of something real. A second definition for the word, however, is an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute.
In this way, A Simulacrum, a piece by Tony-award-winning playwright Lucas Hnath in conversation with magician and performer Steve Cuiffo explores interesting and thought-provoking themes, but never quite satisfies.
The stage, designed by Luisa Thompson with Matt Carlin sourcing props, contains a bare-bones set: two folding tables and a chair. On the stage right table is an amalgamation of magical props and books, while the center table is set simply with a tape recorder. We are watching an imitation (simulacrum) of the rehearsal process for the play, however, in this iteration, Hnath lives only in the recording and Cuiffo must expertly speak his side of the conversation within the beeps and cuts of the tape playing live – the timing of which feels almost magical in its own right.
The piece follows Cuiffo as he talks Hnath through various run-of-the-mill magic tricks, referencing the books he found them in. This beginning magic feels prescribed and verbatim in comparison to the magic performances you may be used to. Cuiffo reads instructions from the books that taught him the tricks as he performs them for us. While still performative in nature, these tricks are missing the spectacle and pizzazz of standard magic – which, it turns out, Hnath is trying to expose and explore.
Halfway through the tight 85 minutes, Hnath throws a wrench in our magician’s plans, asking: “Where is Steve in this?” He then tasks Cuiffo with creating a magic trick that creates vulnerability and focuses internally on expressing himself, rather than looking externally for a reaction from the audience. In this tasking and what comes after, the play truly begins to find its wings.
The second half of the performance finds Cuiffo struggling to step beyond the iterative tricks he’s built, learned, and rehearsed, to find a trick that contains him, makes him vulnerable, and opens itself to failure. In the final moments of the piece, the audience gets to experience the result of this test – a real visceral, personal magic trick – and it’s heartwarming and uncomfortable in the most beautiful of ways.
However, without featuring any big show-y pizzazzy magic at the start of the piece, the quietness and vulnerability of the final moments only hits so hard. We lose out on the contrast and juxtaposition of the performative magic and the vulnerable magic, as the piece starts from a less noisy place than most traditional magic shows. That being said, the piece asks the artist, the thinker, the average Joe to consider what it would take to stop performing; to open yourself up to failure and try to create something for someone else – in doing so, you just may find a deeper piece of yourself that you were previously too afraid to share; in doing so, you may discover where the true magic lies.
By Lucas Hnath with Steve Cuiffo
Directed by Lucas Hnath; performed by Steve Cuiffo
Sets by Luisa Thompson; costumes by Qween Jean; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; sound by Mikhail Fiksel; props by Matt Carlin. Produced by the Atlantic Theater Company: Niel Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. Through Sunday July 2nd at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W 16th Street). https://atlantictheater.org/production/a-simulacrum/