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Magic Act
SF WEEKLY

April 29, 2009

Actors pull off the best trick of all: giving vibrancy to a so-so script.

Woody Allen's 1981 play, The Floating Light Bulb, begins and ends with a magic trick. "The Floating Light Bulb" was the signature piece of great early-20th-century illusionist Harry Blackstone Sr. On a darkened stage, Blackstone would remove a lighted bulb from a lamp and float it, still glowing, through a brass hoop and eventually out over theatergoers' heads.

Traveling Jewish Theatre's new production of the play doesn't fully re-create Blackstone's illusion. The light bulb dances, but owing to the limitations of the performance space (so the show's magic consultant Christian Cagigal tells me), it doesn't sail out into the audience. Nevertheless, this flashy bit of theatrical wizardry is still impressive, even to a modern audience accustomed to computer-generated special effects. The stunt is most likely intended to serve as a hokey dramaturgical symbol for the illusory nature of human existence — the main theme of Allen's inconsequential but entertaining domestic drama. But as executed by the precociously gifted young actor Ben Freeman, it more intriguingly represents the play-saving power of great acting.

Set in and around a tenement apartment in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1945, Light Bulb captures several days in the lives of the Pollacks, an estranged Jewish family. While head of the household Max gambles away his earnings and makes plans to elope with his mistress, his long-suffering yet intolerable nag of a wife, Enid, tries to keep things together at home. With money running out and two growing sons to feed, Enid tries to coax her eldest, Paul, into finding work. Unfortunately, the painfully shy and awkward teenager wants to pursue only one thing in life: his obsession with magic. Just when the family's future seems bleak, the arrival of Jerry, a neighbor's well-dressed, talent-scout brother, suddenly gives Enid new hope. The resourceful mom arranges for Paul to audition for Jerry, hoping the entertainment industry insider will help the boy launch a career as a magician. But when Paul's stage fright gets the better of him, things at the Pollack home take an unexpected turn.

When it premiered on Broadway in 1981, Light Bulb did not receive as favorable a response as Allen's two earlier plays. Don't Drink the Water ran for close to 600 performances between 1966 and 1968, while Play It Again Sam, which opened the following year in a production starring Allen and Diane Keaton, went on to earn three Tony Award nominations. Contrastingly, Light Bulb garnered mixed reviews and closed after just 62 performances.

This isn't surprising. The play offers a comically broad glimpse of mid-20th-century New York Jewish life, with its claustrophobic view of tenement living and overbearing picture of motherhood ("I don't nag; I encourage"). But Light Bulb's stereotypical situations and clichéd characters lack the nuances of their counterparts in Allen's more captivating 1987 movie, Radio Days, which covered similar thematic terrain. The scene in the second half in which Paul finally musters up the courage to stage his magic show for Jerry is touching, funny, and, featuring a panoply of magic tricks, theatrical. But it's the only truly stageworthy scene in a play that could just as easily be produced onscreen. Light Bulb shallowly harps on the well-worn "failed American Dream" theme, with characters constantly clinging to the vain hope of winning a big bet or discovering the entertainment world's next big thing. As such, it feels — as the critic Frank Rich pointed out in his review of the original New York production — like second-rate Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.

Like a magician pulling a freshly hatched chick from a sack, TJT's production transforms Allen's humdrum script into something fresh and almost substantial. Director Nancy Carlin keeps the action ticking along and smoothly builds toward the climax. The trompe l'oeil–inspired two-dimensionality of Nina Ball's set design, with its flat, painted surfaces depicting the furniture in the Pollacks' house, underscores Allen's thematic interest in illusion. Meanwhile, lighting designer Lucas Krech's use of shadows and blackouts imbues the play with a much-needed dose of theatricality.

The main reason to see this production, however, is for the acting. TJT's cast alchemically transforms Allen's tired stereotypes into full-blooded, surprisingly empathetic characters. Far from playing the prototypical showbiz huckster, Rolf Saxon manages to turn Jerry, a character described by Rich in his review as "a tired flim-flam artist" and "sad, overgrown momma's boy," into a sweet if lonely middle-aged guy with a genuine soft spot for the maladjusted family. The actor's dancing eyes and broad smile are magnetizing: He looks like everyone's favorite uncle. Ellen Ratner is similarly engaging as Enid. In some ways, she's the typical Jewish Mama. But whether confronting her philandering husband or calling in increasingly panicked tones to her sons when they fail to show up to greet Jerry, she subtly allows her vulnerable side to seep through.

If anyone carries the show, it's Freeman. Playing Paul is not easy; aside from his gift for magic tricks, he also has a speech impediment. But Freeman doesn't shrink from the physical aspects of the character. He pushes the stutter close to the point of obscenity and lopes about the stage with a hunched, gawky gaucheness. In the best scene, when Paul loses what little composure he had while auditioning, he knocks over a prop, trips, and attempts to sit on an armchair but ends up sprawling on the floor. It's as if Paul's spinal column, like his wits, has deserted him. The character's extreme shyness manifests itself in a series of wild convulsions that are as painful as they are hilarious to watch.

And then there's the magic. According to Cagigal, Freeman, a novice in the conjuring arts, nailed the show's many tricks in just three weeks. Like a light bulb mysteriously floating in a darkened theater, great acting creates a perfect illusion. The wires are invisible. We can't help but wonder how it's done.

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