Cuiffo makes it clear that this show presents “presentational magic,” not “personal magic” — that is, the staging is more one-sided, absent the transactional element that comes with audience participation. It’s just an aside, but it epitomizes how the show moves, from a more traditional magic show format, with disappearing coins and autonomous cards that jump and flip on and around his person, to something more intimate.
Hnath’s blunt interrogations (“Where is Steve in this?”) and matter-of-fact reactions (“That’s it?” he asks after Cuiffo performs a card trick that took him 14 years to master), though sometimes difficult to hear with the tape’s poor sound quality, reveal an incisive thinker. That should be no surprise to those familiar with his work, like “The Thin Place,” a kind of ghost story, and “Dana H.,” another simulacrum involving a real, harrowing story about Hnath’s mother that is lip-synced to a recording of her recounting the experience. (It remains one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had in a theater.) And yet, at times this production too explicitly spells out his conceit, as when Hnath questions how much of Cuiffo’s magic is mimicry, each trick being a variation of a theme — yes, a simulacrum.
Ultimately this is a show with an intentionally self-defeating concept: One that breaks down the artifice of an art form by employing another art form that uses a similar kind of artifice to reveal some aspect of humanity. But there’s an occasional tediousness to this behind-the-scenes, making-of endeavor, and a few moments of built-in dissatisfaction, as when Cuiffo has to perform tricks that he knows won’t work.
An engaging performer, Cuiffo subverts the splashy style that many professional magicians are known for; he’s low-key, grounded in both his gestures and his manner of speech. And the difficulty of what he’s doing shouldn’t be understated: He’s not just repeating his part of the dialogue but replicating his pauses, cadence, emphases naturally and in sync with Hnath’s audio.
As carefully considered as this production is, with Louisa Thompson’s modest scenic design (two tables, an office-window backdrop) and Hnath’s cerebral direction, ultimately there is still the sense that something is missing: a deeper interrogation of Cuiffo and Hnath himself, something even more personal. We never get the full reveal.