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!

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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

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