What hath “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” wrought? The creators of “Elephant Room” may not have been directly inspired by Paul Reubens’ campy childhood takeoff, but the magic show now at the Kirk Douglas is cut from the same lightly smarmy, semi-surrealist, so-clunky-we’re-cool cloth. What Pee-wee pulls off, the Elephants muff: The framework of “Room” is incoherent and distasteful (beneath a wholesome veneer), and the performers spectacularly overestimate their personal appeal.
Having turned themselves into magicians, or so the conceit goes, three friends from Paterson, N.J., have come west in search of fame and the sale of T-shirts, caps and posters. Dennis Diamond is a mentalist geek with a ’70s porn star ‘stache and leer to match; Louie Magic, a puckish Avery Schreiber clone, excels at sleight of hand; and balloon animals are blown by willowy blond Daryl Hannah, whose handlebar mustache quickly dispels any hope of his being the statuesque beauty of “Splash” fame.
We’re supposed to believe they’ve carted here, and hoisted up on cinder blocks, the very basement rec room in which they developed their act. Mimi Lien’s design emphasizes the kitsch — a stuffed pheasant; ’50s era sofa; velvet wall paintings — though nothing could be kitschier than the cavalcade of tricks, patter and would-be comedy trotted out on it.
For every impressive illusion (it’s exciting to see an omelette cooked live without visible means of heat, for instance) there are two or three numbingly boring bits. A routine about setting a tourniquet, and a phone sex call to the Dalai Lama, go on interminably with no payoff. Even when tricks are working, helmer Paul Lazar keeps multiple actions going on (including nonsense monologues and Dadaist slapstick) so the eye and ear are never guided to what’s worth attending.
Most nagging drawback is the approach to characterization. Successful comics choose a single persona and don’t deviate: Jack Benny is always a vain miser, Joan Rivers a sassy yenta and Pee-wee himself a mischievous slyboots. But the “Elephant Room” denizens slip from preening egotists to dopey yokels to straight emcees at whim, creating an overall sense of insincerity completely inimical to the endearment they take for granted. These guys walk in assuming we will fall over ourselves in fondness for them, but they never earn our affection.
The evening ends with a protracted nostalgic monologue in which Dennis praises his childhood mentor, a magic shop owner who (we gradually realize) molested him as one of the tricks he taught. One would’ve thought the magic show was the last refuge of entertainment for the entire family. No longer.