By Stanford Friedman
It’s not quite the Marvel Cinematic Universe but, over the past decade, the crazy like a fox folks of London’s Mischief Theatre Ltd. have amassed an international entertainment franchise unlike any other. Beginning with 2014’s lovably slapstick The Play That Goes Wrong, and focusing on bumbling zeros rather than superpowered heroes, the company has mounted a dozen various long-runs, short stumbles, podcasts, improvs and TV episodes. Its latest full-length frolic, the quite bonkers Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion, sticks to that successful formula, conjuring up a sad loser who fails magnificently at his craft, cracking up the audience while gaining their sympathy along the way.
The origin story of the Mind Mangler (Henry Lewis) begins with 2019’s Magic Gone Wrong where the character was one of several failed prestidigitators brought together for a supposed charity event. Now, left to his own devices, he is sure he is on the road to success despite a questionable track record. As a teen magician, it turns out, he had a penchant for accidentally starting fires, leaving him able to only perform outdoors, usually “near major road accidents.”
Reading the minds of audience members is the set-up for much of the show’s humor as he demonstrates his weird set of senses that allow him, with a lick of the tongue, to taste what someone’s name is, or to literally sniff out someone’s occupation, or use his hearing to perform a card trick. Most of the magic goes terribly, delightfully astray, naturally, with Lewis nimbly working the crowd, indulging in improv, and barely able to contain his own laughter at the unpredictability inherent in a New York crowd at holiday season. Later, when it’s time for some Uri Geller-esque spoon bending, nearly everything on the stage gets bent except, of course, the spoon.
More well-earned laughs come via the smart script, by Lewis and his cohorts Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, that ensures that the Mangler gives away more about himself than he learns about us strangers. He confesses that his act primarily exists to cover the costs of his recent divorce and that his ex-wife’s sister has been sabotaging his marketing plan (The subtitle’s “Tragic Illusion” was meant to be “Magic Illusion.”). Midway through the show he is accidentally hypnotized, leading him to reveal a secret every time he shakes hands with an audience member. There are plenty of shakes and many amusingly poignant throw-away confessions like, “I never had my mother’s love.”
A mind reader is only as good as the stooge he has planted in the audience and unfortunately for the Mangler, his colleague is inept in the extreme. Hilariously portrayed by Jonathan Sayer and identified simply as “An Audience Member” and later as “Another Audience Member,” he turns the act of bumbling into a fine art before finally switching gears to reveal himself a true friend to his boss, indeed perhaps his only friend.
Unexplainably, Lewis does indulge in several successful feats of magic that seem at odds with his character’s bad luck. He masters reassembling a torn to shreds newspaper (albeit one with bitingly funny headlines), and performs a couple bouts of clairvoyance not easily explained away. Equally odd, but a welcome palate cleanser, are a recurring series of fast, out-of-character bits under the rubric of, “Quick Fire Jesus,” where sight gags of the bible, like walking on water, get their due.
Though the audience was full of children on the afternoon I attended, the play is marginally family-friendly, and Lewis often seemed more bothered than amused at having to deal with the kids, especially when a precocious fourteen-year-old played havoc with one of the audience’s participatory bits. If your young ones are triggered by divorce, the occasional dirty word or being directly yelled at by a large man in a blazer, leave them at home with Spider-Man before heading to New World Stages for a memorable encounter with your friendly neighborhood Mind Mangler.
Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion – By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields; directed by Hannah Sharkey.
WITH: Henry Lewis (Mind Mangler), Jonathan Sayer (Stooge, Steve) and Tom Wainright (Stage Manager, Percy).
Set design by Sara Perks, costume design by Roberto Surace, lighting design by David Howe, sound design by Helen Skiera, and video design by Gillian Tan. Mischief Theatre Company at New World Stages, 340 West 50th St., 212.239.6200, https://mindmanglernyc.com. Through March 3, 2024. Run time: 2 hours.