Now Ya See It, Now Ya Don’t

Nietzsche once said, “Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes.” In Disillusioned, a new play by Susan Hodara, we find a little bit of both. The touching two-act drama explores the decade-or-so-long relationship between a solitary aging magician, Bernie, and a tween-age runaway orphan, Jane, who latches onto him, and whom he ultimately legally adopts. As the play opens, Jane often plays hooky and lingers around Bernie’s building, which contains his magic shop, workshop, and living quarters, begging to become his onstage assistant. However, while seemingly a natural performer, Jane is nervous and suffers from stage fright, so Bernie suggests she take on the persona of a blind girl, and they work out routines for her wearing dark glasses, so that she can feel more comfortable by no longer “seeing” the audience. The ruse works, they start to become a team (in more ways than one), while Jane begins to live her life, at least to outsiders, as though she were blind. The moody tone of the piece, with direction by Noël Neeb, does evoke the feeling of their private world within a world, echoed in the simple space containing just a few key set pieces and familiar magic props, created and stage managed by Andi Cohen and Dalia Garcia. Most of the action centers on Bernie and Jane, and a deep buffer grows between that safety zone and their audiences (and later, the whole world) beyond. The use of prerecorded voiceover sequences also elicits a bit of distance from the immediate action, and elegantly allows space for some of the play’s deeper narratives to come through. While their relationship is well-drawn, ranging from that of (switchable) parent-child roles, to partners, to intimate companions, it's not completely clear how they actually relate to their audiences, as those scenes are not shown. Are they really master showmen, delighting and amazing whoever comes to watch? Or are they just barely drawing a crowd? Certainly as the property and Bernie’s health decline, (and the business in general?), the latter seems a safer assumption.

The magic tricks, lighting effects (designed by Jamie Roderick), and slight-of-hand flourishes are colorful touches in a piece that at times could risk becoming maudlin. Thankfully, there’s some humor and distraction to possibly prepare viewers for the more tragic moments, even though the second act begins to feel overwhelmingly depressing with no signs of a reprieve until the almost-too-late final moments. Also towards the end, it becomes a bit unclear just how many years have passed, and we wonder if we’re now witnessing a full-out Grey Gardens-type of scenario. In Act 2, as Bernie continues to falter, Jane’s heretofore affected blindness has unfortunately become a reality, but of course it’s her continued chosen separateness from the outside world, rather than her disability, which feels so much more debilitating. The idea that one’s “biography becomes one’s biology” (a là medical intuitive Caroline Myss) seems to be enacted here, and while Jane's predicament is certainly ironic and allegorical, her isolation doesn’t seem quite as readily overcome as the play’s ending might suggest.

However, Disillusioned is an unusual and captivating love story with sensitive and playful performances by both Georgie Caldwell as Jane, and Eric Powers as Bernie. Keith Manolo Embler portrays two other key characters, the first a tender and bittersweet portrayal of Ian, a young man in love, while the second seems a bit more difficult to discern as written. (Also with perhaps not enough stage time to fully develop.) Another excellent player is Hans, a gorgeous black bunny who plays Max, the ubiquitous magician’s rabbit and previous sole companion for Bernie prior to Jane’s arrival. Here, Hans makes his New York stage debut, and appears truly aware and fully engaged in his scenes, hitting all his marks (aided by Powers' and Caldwell's excellent handling) and charming the audience. Now if only there were an Obie category for best bunny rabbit...

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