The Expert at the Card Table

In "The Expert at the Card Table," feats with a deck of cards are wrapped around a haunting dual biography of historical colleagues, whose stories reveal as much about a magician's heart as his art.

With: Guy Hollingworth

No one doesn’t like a great magic act, and U.K. master conjuror Guy Hollingworth’s can’t be beat. But in “The Expert at the Card Table,” feats with a deck of cards are wrapped around a haunting dual biography of historical colleagues, whose stories reveal as much about a magician’s heart as his art. This 99-seat entertainment is brought to Santa Monica’s Broad Stage courtesy of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, and in every way, it’s a pip.

“The Expert” is actually the title of a 1901 guide to card manipulation penned by the pseudonymous tattletale Samuel Erdnase, whose revelation of all the tricks of the trade – stacked shuffles, dealing from the bottom, palming, three card monte secrets – has inspired legions of illusionists and poker cheaters alike. (Small wonder the volume has never fallen out of print.)

Hollingworth has clearly spent hundreds if not thousands of hours perfecting Erdnase’s sleight of hand, though those strenuous efforts are belied by his warmth and debonair delivery. Prowling in a tux around Norman Bartholomew’s cozy setting of table and chairs, vanity and picture window, calling up the occasional volunteer, he shows off dozens of the manual’s techniques with no apparent qualm. An overhead videocam is even allowed to offer us a casino-style “eye in the sky” view of the proceedings: See? Nothing up his sleeve!

Guy’s openness is a sham, of course. Every trade secret he demonstrates is just a come-on into the real jaw-dropping magic. We’re twice as baffled when a vanished or torn-up card reappears, or the deck is dealt out incredibly ordered by suit, because we think he’s already told us the secret.

But what of Erdnase? Why would any magician go to such detailed lengths to violate his brethren’s code of omerta? That’s the real question animating the narration, which surveys the parallel careers of Samuel and boyhood chum Milton, two converts to the art form who made use of it in very different ways. If you ever wondered about the moral dimensions of shuffling and dealing, Hollingworth is keen to provide food for thought.

Credited as helmer is fellow magician Neil Patrick Harris, whose most recent showbiz illusion seems to be appearing in five different places at once.

Projections, sound effects and period tunes waft in and out of the black-box performance space, every movement and gesture keeping our attention glued where it belongs.

True to the highest standards of his brotherhood, Harris’ staging hand is quicker than the eye.

The Expert at the Card Table

The Broad Stage, Santa Monica; 99 seats; $85 top

Production: A Broad Stage presentation of an entertainment in one act. Directed by Neil Patrick Harris.

Creative: Sets and lighting, Norman Bartholomew. Opened, reviewed July 15, 2011. Runs through Aug. 7. Running time: 75 MIN.

Cast: With: Guy Hollingworth

More Legit

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “When I read a script, it processes in my head like a [...]

  • Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

    How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content