New York Actor Finds Magic in Harry Houdini

Production photos by Dixie Sheridan.
Production photos by Dixie Sheridan.
Production photos by Dixie Sheridan.

George Demas already enjoys the kind of career in the theatre that most people think you can’t have anymore. He works — a lot — and well. He’s one of those actors whose animated face you know or whose name you know or maybe it’s both his name and his face that you know, but you know that you’ve seen it, you know you’ve heard it before — and then there’s his voice, crisp, sonorous, resonant. Wasn’t he in that Off-Broadway revival, so memorably directed by David Cromer, of Our Town by Thornton Wilder? Definitely: Demas was cast in a triumvirate of roles in the original cast of that one. Right, right: and wasn’t he also in that other long-running play at the same theatre as Our Town, wasn’t it the Barrow Street Theatre, in another Cromer-directed play? — wasn’t it Orson’s Shadow by Austin Pendleton? Yes, that too. And, parenthetically, if you mosey up a few blocks north of the venerable Barrow Street, to the West Village’s Sheridan Square, you’ll find Demas having appeared in play after play with the Axis Company, Randy Sharp’s sharp performing coterie. “Hey, wait a minute,” you blurt, your head nodding in a Karen Allen moment from a film she never made. That Mark Palmieri play, Levittown, also at Axis, that guy directed it, right? Getting warmer, yes. And he’s the guy who also has his own theatre company? Paper Clip something or other? Clipboard? Cliplight Theatre, yes, you’re paying attention. And finally, that other play — Krapp, 39? — it detonated brilliantly at the New York International Fringe Festival a couple of years ago, and transferred to an Off-Broadway run? Bingo: Demas directed that, too. Now, to be sure, it’s in error to say that Demas is ubiquitous — no actor short of Jennifer Lawrence would indulge in that kind of talk. But he has always been there, visible, for all to notice and all to follow. Demas is successful in the way that theatre artists can be successful in New York City now, with work begetting him work, a long resume begetting him a longer one.

What’s different now, though, is that Demas is playing a role so unusual that, like his professional resume, speaks for itself: Harry Houdini. Vaguely, you remember that Hugh Jackman was going to play Houdini in a Broadway-bound musical that is now off the table, or so we’re told. Well, this table is set: In Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini, Sharp’s new play for the Axis crew, Demas connects across the decades to the deep but still elusive legacy of the most magical magic-maker of the 20th century. Sharp’s play, moreover, is no solo flashback; there are no self-serving, slathering choruses of “And Then I Did” or “And Then I Wrote” or “And Then I Escaped” or “And Then I Died.” Sharp, who also directs the play, instead recalls Houdini’s driven crusade to expose fraudulent mediums — and his famous crossing of paths with none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the mysterious, profoundly spiritual creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Story continues below.

Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini runs through Apr. 5 at the Axis Theatre (1 Sheridan Sq.). For tickets, call 212-352-3101.

And now, 5 questions George Demas has never been asked: 

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I’m sure I’ve been asked many perceptive questions about my work, since we live on this island of smart Manhattan people, but I actively try to not take myself so seriously that I might regard a question as “perceptive.” That would mean I think there’s this great and complex task I perform that somehow this special person can get a bead on. My attitude about my work is closer to that of a hoopster hitting free throws, about which deep perceptiveness is not necessary.

At right: Spencer Aste as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
At right: Spencer Aste as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
It’s super-easy to ask an idiotic question about acting because most people don’t do it for a living, in the same way that I might quickly sound idiotic asking a jeweler about his work. But amongst those who should know better: “What is your action in the scene?”

Story continues below.

People don’t have actions; they have problems. Being acutely aware of the problem a character faces will implicitly make you go out on stage and try to solve it. Thinking of actions is a stiff approach. For instance, if my “action” is to take the gum off my shoe, then that’s it: I’m sitting there pulling gum off the sole of the shoe. If the “problems” my character faces are that he has gum on his shoe and he’s late, I can pull the gum off, or try to walk in a way that the gum doesn’t hit the floor, or take the shoes off and walk barefoot, or throw the shoe out the window, or any number of other things. It’s more liberating and fluid (and fun!) to think that way. We only know of our actions in history; right now we have problems.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Questions about my work regarding money or notoriety always ring bizarre to me. The finances of a life in the theater are horrifying, and should be actively avoided as a subject for discussion. As well, being concerned with being noticed is a graceless and ugly preoccupation. Unintellectual. Unartistic.

4) What is the biggest misconception about Harry Houdini and what is there both the text of the play and in your performance to address it?
I’m sorry to not answer this, but I’m not sure that anyone has a crystalline conception of who Harry Houdini was, and that may very well have been by the Master’s design. I think he wanted to project something not quite completely readable. What people do have a clear idea of is who he was to them. And that sold tickets.

5) Before reading Nothing on Earth, if a random stranger had asked you “What is magic?,” what would your answer have been? What would it be now?
My idea of magic has not changed: magic, somehow, makes you let go of what you know. And for those of us in our middle age, that makes us feel like little kids again… Wonderful…

Headshot by Jennifer Woodward

6) At a séance tomorrow, Houdini will agree to answer three questions from you. What will you ask? The catch is that he can ask you three questions, too. Which three questions should he ask you? Which three questions shouldn’t he ask you?
I hate to push back on this, but I’m not so interested in meeting Houdini, or having the chance to ask him certain questions.  I don’t really give a darn what he thinks (or thought). I’m playing him for the sake of serving a writer who is conveying a certain set of her ideas. That’s all I’m concerned with—not reviving the dead. I’m hopefully involved in creating a work of art. I’m actually not “playing Houdini” in my mind. I’m playing what’s on the page of the script I’ve been given. To the degree that that intersects with the actual Houdini: fiat.

7) In an alternate universe, Houdini lived until 1951—another 25 years. Based on your take on him as an actor, walk us through the rest of Houdini’s life. Any major surprises?
I think Houdini might have said, “I got out just at the right time. You can keep those 25.” In the following years, our lovely Harry would have had to face the Holocaust. Given the degree to which his work exhibited such faith and hope for the human being, living though people doing that to each other would have just broken his heart. I’m not sure he could have continued performing after that, or at least with such fervor.  Also, given the injuries sustained over the years in his trying performances, his old age would have been filled with an acute amount of daily physical pain. Forgive me, but it all turned out as it should, I think.