In ‘A Simulacrum,’ Steve Cuiffo Has Nothing Up His Sleeves

Steve Cuiffo began performing magic the way that most kids do. His brother did tricks. So did an older cousin. A grandfather had a routine with a handkerchief and a dime that absolutely killed. While he was in elementary school, he started entertaining at birthday parties, first for $5 and then more. He kept up his routines even as he studied theater at New York University and began to work with avant-garde companies like the Wooster Group.

“I always had a deck of cards in my hand,” he said recently. “I still kind of do.” (Technically, on the afternoon of our interview, they were in his shirt pocket.)

For some years, he kept acting and illusionism separate. But gradually he combined them: first with “Major Bang,” a nuclear-terror comedy for the Foundry Theater, and then through work with Rainpan 43, which premiered the ecstatic magic lampoon, “Elephant Room.” He was also a magic consultant on other productions (television shows and movies, too), including Lucas Hnath’s 2013 play “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.” (He and Hnath had overlapped at N.Y.U., but only became friendly later.)

One day, during rehearsals for “Disney,” while watching Cuiffo teach the actor Larry Pine how to cough up bloody handkerchiefs, Hnath recalled telling that show’s director, Sarah Benson, “I could just watch that all day long.”

And now he can. Cuiffo and Hnath have created “A Simulacrum,” which includes both classic tricks (the ambitious card, the torn and restored newspaper) and some new ones. Unusually for a magic show, it also incorporates several tricks that fail. Because “A Simulacrum,” running through July 2 at Atlantic Stage 2, is less a demonstration of magic than a deconstruction of how and why magic is made. To perform it, Cuiffo, 45, had to unlearn most of his habits, to strip away any vestige of showmanship.

“This whole show is trying to answer that question of what is magic,” said Cuiffo, sunk into a couch in his dressing room, deep underground at the Atlantic Stage 2 space in Chelsea, and dressed in magician-appropriate all-black.

His offstage persona is fairly close to the stage one he favors — rumpled, excitable, mildly sardonic, casually authoritative. Writing in The Times, Maya Phillips complimented his unflashy stage presence: “He’s low-key, grounded in both his gestures and his manner of speech.” If there is space between the man he is and the man he plays when he’s making cards appear and disappear, he can’t quite find it.

“If I had a therapist, maybe I could answer that,” he said.

Cuiffo, a familiar face Off Broadway, is unusual both in how he fuses magic and theater, which few performers do, and in how he appears to combine rigor with a seeming spontaneity.

“He’s this great improvisational performer at his deepest core,” said Christine Jones, who was moved to create the one-on-one performance event Theater for One after Cuiffo performed close-up magic for her at a wedding. “But of course that’s balanced with hours and hours and hours of practice that is not improvisational at all.”

Earlier work: Cuiffo, far right, with Geoff Sobelle, left, and Trey Lyford, center, as dorky-cool suburbanites with a fixation on sleight-of-hand in “Elephant Room: Dust From the Stars,” a play performed on Zoom in 2020.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Geoff Sobelle, who created “Elephant Room” and its sequel, “Elephant Room: Dust From the Stars,” with Cuiffo and the actor Trey Lyford, described a different balancing act, a reverence for and an impatience with magic as an art form.

“As much as he loves this stuff,” Sobelle said, “he also totally wants to tear it down and just rip it apart.”

After “Disney,” he created the mentalism routine for Hnath’s “The Thin Place,” a ghost story about a woman with supposed psychic powers, and the vanishing act in “Dana H.,” a first-person account of the kidnapping of Hnath’s mother. When “Dana H.” premiered at the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, a member of the company’s artistic staff commissioned this new magic show by Hnath and Cuiffo.

Their first of three workshops for what became “A Simulacrum” took place on East 15th Street in August 2021. The collaborators had set a few parameters. Hnath, who was raised as an evangelical Christian, had performed magic as a teenager, typically as a way to illustrate Gospel lessons. That experience has made him allergic to both audience participation and flimflam, so they had decided on a format that was closer to an interview.

“I really wanted to find a way to make a magic show that I would want to watch,” Hnath said in a recent interview. “I wanted to make an honest magic show.”

Hnath also decided they would record the workshops, which ultimately ran to 50 hours. Hnath then edited the recordings, with his voice appearing on tape and Cuiffo recreating, at each performance, his own side of the conversation.

“We’ve set it up so I don’t have to act,” Cuiffo said.

Cuiffo recalled his excitement for that first workshop. He had plenty of tricks to show Hnath, some old, some new. He figured they would choose the best ones and refine them. But as he moved from one to the next, Hnath remained unimpressed. The routines felt too polished, too slick. Hnath preferred messiness.

“I like the real mistakes, not the fake ones,” he said. “Too often magic and performance feels superhuman. I was interested in a more vulnerable version of magic performance.”

In anticipation of the second workshop, to be held three months later, Hnath set up several impossible or nearly impossible tasks: Cuiffo had to create a trick that would realize some fantasy or desire, a trick that would fail, a trick in which the outcome would be a surprise and — this prompt was possibly the hardest — a trick that Cuiffo’s wife, the actress Eleanor Hutchins, would love. (As Hutchins confirmed in an email, most magic makes her “uncomfortable.”)

“I wanted to see how much I could stack on top of him and still watch him wriggle his way out,” Hnath said. “Because he really is a magnificent problem solver.”

That second workshop, as the show reveals, didn’t go very well. “Brutal” and “stressful” were the words that Cuiffo used to describe it. A perfectionist, Cuiffo struggled with the prompts. These were problems that he couldn’t solve, at least not in the way that Hnath required. Eventually, the workshop devolved into a two-hour fight, which erupted when Hnath critiqued the props that Cuiffo planned to use in the trick for Hutchins as “cheating.”

“That got gnarly,” Cuiffo recalled. “Like, are you telling me how I need to make a piece for my wife?”

There was one further workshop, which forms the show’s third act, although to say too much about it would be to blight the surprise. Cuiffo did eventually develop a trick and Hutchins confirmed that she did in fact love it.

“It was unexpected, understated and personal,” she wrote in an email. “It was cute, funny and nice, just like Steve.”

The show was designed to be about process, not product, however funny and nice. Despite the stress and the arguments, Cuiffo said that he enjoyed having Hnath as a collaborator and goad.

“He strategically broke down all that [expletive] I usually do,” Cuiffo said.

Making illusions without any of the patter, the showmanship, the razzle-dazzle? That, he has learned, is a kind of magic, too.

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