Debunking spiritualism hoaxes takes high standards and patience.
By Joel Benjamin
In the spiffily renovated space that used to house Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the Axis Company is presenting Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) by Randall Sharp (who also directed and designed the bare but evocative set), an examination of Houdini’s anti-spiritualism campaign.
The play pits Houdini, escape artist extraordinaire, against Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes author. Doyle is a profound believer in séances as a means to commune with his late son. Houdini intends to prove him absolutely and completely wrong, taking advantage of a cash prize offered by Scientific American Magazine to the first scientifically proven clairvoyant. Nothing on Earth begins with Houdini (George Demas) and his assistant Jim Collins (David Crabb) debunking medium Ralph Grimshaw (Brian Linden), exposing his tactics as mere fraudulent theatrics. Despite Grimshaw’s pleas for understanding—Grimshaw actually believes he is helping the bereaved—Houdini will not back down, such his ardor for truth, pointing out that not one of the medium’s conjured creatures has repeated the code words he had given his long gone mother.
Arthur Conan Doyle (Spencer Aste), on a perpetual search for a medium who will connect him with his dead son has arranged a séance with Mina “Margery” Crandon (Lynn Mancinelli) who is managed by her overly ardent husband, Leroi Crandon (Brian Barnhart). Houdini, in order to show Doyle his folly, attends the séance, but with a number of stringent conditions, including putting Mina into a cabinet that will limit her movements and ability to communicate with her husband or use artificial effects to lessen any chance of chicanery.
This mess of a séance, frequently interrupted by each character’s input and chatter, is the centerpiece of Nothing on Earth. They argue about petty details, speak over each other, seduce each other and work hard to bolster each other’s cause, expressing their anxieties. It’s obvious what the outcome will be, but seeing it acted out in the intimate Axis space is fascinating. As written by Ms. Sharp, Harry Houdini becomes a one-cause, one-note crusader whose career as a world famous entertainer is barely touched on (although in the lobby of the Axis Theatre videos of Houdini’s exploits were shown).
In order to create the feel of the period, musical numbers from that time, 1922, were played before, during and after the show. Ms. Sharp might have presented more facets of this legendary man, but, as embodied by George Demas, who physically resembles Houdini, his humanity comes through. As the hapless Grimshaw, Brian Linden makes a great impression. Even though he’s a charlatan, he is someone you care for. David Crabb gives a solid supporting performance as Houdini’s assistant Jim. Brian Barnhart’s sweaty, befuddled and sexually beguiled Leroi is both amusing and moving. As his seductive wife, Mina, Lynn Mancinelli is a wonderful combination of fragile femininity and power. Although Spencer Aste for some reason eschews an English accent—and there are plenty of films of Doyle speaking—he is a complex mix of emotional neediness and intellect. Nothing on Earth has a great deal to say about the our built-in awe of death and our need for understanding its attendant discord and the lengths to which we still go to gain some sort of comfort.
Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) – through March 29, 2014 Axis Theatre One Sheridan Square (Greenwich Village) New York, NY Reservations & Information: 212-807-9300 or www.axiscompany.org Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
*Photo: Dixie Sheridan