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A Regular Little Houdini

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 17, 2017

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams
Photo by Sheri Bankes

Harry Houdini was not only a gifted stage magician and escape artist; he was a master showman who knew how to pull off attention-grabbing stunts that ensured both a lucrative career while he lived, and an enduring legacy that survives to this day. If only Daniel Llewelyn-Williams were able to tap more liberally into some of that razzle-dazzle, then perhaps his solo show, A Regular Little Houdini, would stir up more excitement than the occasional sparks that flare up briefly in the subdued production at 59E59 Theaters.

Once we get past the low-key opening, which includes some sleight-of-hand tricks involving cards, a coin, and cigarettes, Llewelyn-Williams works up a head of steam as he launches into the coming-of-age story that serves as the heart of the 65-minute work. It is the story of Alan, the son of a dockworker in Newport, South Wales in the early 1900s. The boy has developed an obsession with Houdini, two of whose appearances in Newport bookend the performance. Inspired by tales of his hero's feats of derring-do, Alan is determined to create some "amazements" of his own. He has some modest successes, but there also is a narrow escape that leaves him permanently injured. Llewelyn-Williams sets the story within the context of an actual disaster, the tragic collapse of a dock expansion in which many workers were killed.

It is in the telling of Alan's story that the playwright/performer shows his greatest strength, as he uses his voice to transform from Alan to his father to his grandfather to his timid friend Maurice to the great Houdini himself. Gradually piecing together their individual portraits, Llewelyn-Williams provides the kinds of small details that breathe life into his characters and give us a real sense of growing up in a working class Welsh neighborhood at the turn of the twentieth century.

As in real life, the dock accident intrudes in the story with no warning, and both it and Alan's own earlier accident are nail-biters. Alan's eventual face-to-face meeting with Houdini adds a nice fillip to wrap things up. Yet, ultimately, A Regular Little Houdini, directed by Joshua Richards, is less of a play than it is a piece of story-telling, supported by a couple of lighting cues, a bit of recorded fiddle music composed by Meg Cox, and one effectively disturbing piece of sound design. It is sorely in need of some old-fashioned theater magic to make it feel like it is more than just an anecdote or a family story that has become a staple at the holiday get-together.

A Regular Little Houdini
Through December 31
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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