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In & of Itself

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 12, 2017

Derek DelGaudio
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Magic acts can get away with being quiet and contemplative, as the magic is usually flashy and showy enough. But the difference between the style of the presentation and the tricks is rarely as gaping as is the case with In & of Itself, the new venture by Derek DelGaudio that just opened at the Daryl Roth Theatre under the direction of Frank Oz. So unassuming, even introverted, is the magician and so flooring are his feats that you may spend less time wondering how he accomplished them than how he bothered to get out of bed the days he thought them up. If the defining expression of the performer's art is to stand in one place and make you want to come to him, DelGaudio may accomplish it better than any other magician out there.

Clad in a brown three-piece suit, sporting two days' worth of stubble, and speaking in a subdued baritone rumble, he cuts the figure of an accountant pulling an all-nighter, and approaches his storytelling the way such a man might recount figures on an Excel spreadsheet. He spins his first anecdote, about his odd relationship to a master Russian roulette artist whose luck runs out at an inopportune time, nonchalantly, even disapprovingly, as though he can't (and shouldn't) be bothered to believe in legends like the one he's forwarding. But as he segues into his first stunt, which involves a paper boat, a sealed wine bottle, and shadow puppetry, you're reminded that everything you see and hear really is part of the illusion, and that DelGaudio is likely not lying when he insists he's telling the truth because he knows you won't believe it.

I hate to say that that truth is largely incidental to the impact of the evening, but it is—it never registers as more than a setup for the next wonderment. DelGaudio's explanation of how his craving for mystical knowledge as a young man led him to learn from masters of the art is merely the prelude to an astonishing, blindfolded manipulation of a deck of cards in the guise of a bridge deal. And his poignant recollection of discovering his mother was gay, and subsequently having to cope with that reality in various intolerant communities, seems to be primarily about making a brick vanish and reappear at the corner of a Manhattan intersection randomly selected by two audience members. (I must confess I did not verify its presence at Fifth Avenue and 16th Street after the performance I attended, but as of this writing two Twitter users have confirmed it was there.)

To be clear, none of this is to slight—or should that be sleight?—DelGaudio. Aside from Penn and Teller's entropic deconstructions of the form, which are in a class of their own, In & of Itself is, by far, the most mature and fascinating show of this type I've ever seen (even beyond the dazzling Nothing to Hide, which he performed Off-Broadway with Helder GuimarĂ£es in 2013). Even so, although it's intended as a meditation on the nature and influence of identity, chronicling DelGaudio's journey to discovering who he is and encouraging us to embark on one of our own, such concerns invariably fall behind the magic in prominence at every juncture. Oz directs leisurely but purposefully, with A. Bandit's compartmentalized-memory set, Adam Blumenthal's lights, and Kevin Heard's sound granting a mysterious elegance, and all that helps. But for more precise balance, an experienced playwright to aid with structure, or at the very least more time to develop the ideas (the running time is only 75 minutes, and feels even shorter), would not hurt.

Really, though, you're not apt to care if the tricks are good, and those here are pretty great. A climactic guessing game, in which DelGaudio pinpoints assumed personalities listed on cards you choose before even entering the theater, is crazy and impressive enough. But the one in which an (apparently) random person selects an (apparently) random letter that turns out to be from a close personal acquaintance, is truly stunning in both its audacity and its impact. The goal, DelGaudio explains, is to effect the ultimate transformation: of one person into another, in full view of spectators, with the only props the thoughts in that person's head and the feelings in that person's heart.

He succeeded—and brilliantly—when I saw him, all without ever casting himself as more than an unwitting witness to the miracles around him. To what extent, if any, that represents the real DelGaudio, I have no idea. But whoever he is, both he and his show are about as compelling, if not as groundbreaking, as they come.

In & of Itself
Through June 18
Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster