Vanishing Politics! The Off-Broadway Wonder of Vitaly Beckman

If this sounds like a relief, that's because it feels like a relief.

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Vitaly Beckman. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Given the gaping Hellmouth of disinformation and deception in this fake news era, it’s hard not to have a knee-jerk, negative reaction to the term “illusion.” But in Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders, running through Sept. 30 at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre, Vitaly Beckman re-establishes the illusionist, not the politician, as the master of sleight-of-hand (and corny jokes). Here’s his aw-shucks preamble:

My name is Vitaly, and although that name sounds Italian, I was actually born in Soviet Union. And since I speak English, but talk Russian, I sound like Borat. And I look like Seinfeld.

Beckman’s self-deprecating style persists throughout the 80-minute, no intermission show, in which he conjures up a number of original illusions that put traditional Broadway notions of “stage magic” to shame. Highlights include:

  • Invoking kinetic powers to make red apples float!
  • Enchanting a paintbrush to paint — straight out of Fantasia!
  • Collecting driver’s licenses from the audience and making the picture disappear!

The show also incessantly pokes fun at itself, Beckman’s tongue squarely-in-enchanted-cheek. Also, the difference in tone and energy between this show, and what I think of as an increasingly typical type of Off-Broadway play, is palpable.

“Well, obviously,” you say to yourself. “It’s a magic show, not a play.”

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I find many Off-Broadway plays devoted to the idea of creating fiction to immerse its audience. I’d never seen a “magic show” before, but this offered an entirely different conceit — one built into its subtitle, an “evening of wonders.”

Beckman’s “wonders” blossomed into the public consciousness after an appearance on the TV program Penn and Teller: Fool Us, in which magicians perform an illusion in front of the Mount Rushmore of magician-illusionists. Beckman fooled Penn and Teller by making a still photograph appear to come to life, and then letting everyone feel that the photograph was actually just an analog print.

Though his appearance brought him notoriety, Beckman makes a point in his Off-Broadway show to distance himself from that program’s nomenclature; that his intention with illusion is never to “fool” anyone, but rather to put his audience into that aforementioned state of “wonder.” What does that even mean? For TV aficionados, does it mean Gob’s over-the-top illusionist act on Arrested Development? Didn’t “wonder” belong to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey generation of entertainment? And by the way, hasn’t our theatergoing public matured out of “wonder”? How often do we hear about “wonder” outside of being coupled with the infantilizing phrasing “child-like”?

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But second, I would like to relate the notion of “wonder” to the idea that all art is political. Beckman hails from the former Soviet Union, a Communist state that was built politically and ideologically on the notion of a useful population. Here, for 80 minutes, Beckman skillfully creates an act that is politically useless. That sounds like an insult — but I mean it as a compliment. You don’t need to be a critic to know there is an increasingly politicized contingent of NYC audience members who attend theater primarily to siphon off messages like gasoline from a car in order to spit it out later into the faces of the opposition.

I find that Off-Broadway reliably supplies that gasoline because — everyone chant along —

All Art Is Political.

So it follows, then, that Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders is political, right?

Perhaps. But if all art is political, what’s political in all art isn’t always useful for a political end. There can be art that isn’t meant to be weaponized. In this era of Trump, when so much of what is going on requires active opposition, when a “theater-of-good-intentions” feels obligated to provide something politically useful to its audience, it can be exhausting.

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Beckman operates outside this paradigm. It is a task in vain to search for a useful politics in his show. Fifty years ago, his act would have Americans in their hives about losing the “illusion war” to the Soviets and building up a National Illusion Administration. But here, Beckman’s “wonder” is that his show doesn’t aim to provide cocktail-hour political fodder. It is a hermetically sealed experience; it pays no mind to the political armament of a lot of our theater. If this sounds like a relief, that’s because it feels like a relief.

But then a small tinge of guilt follows, and begs the question: In morally urgent times, is it a luxury that we can ill-afford to spend an evening in childlike wonder under Beckman’s charming spell? Can we still be children when adults screw everything up? Should’t we use our time on politically potent stage plays like Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over? Shouldn’t we be at Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale? Or do these questions come from a martyrdom complex wrapped in coastal, elitist rhetoric — the same rhetoric causing more and more Americans to tune out of theater?

On the night I attended Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders, a sizable number of tourists were in the audience. As Beckman bantered with them, they revealed from where they’d traveled. For maybe the only ticket they will purchase, they chose to purchase a ticket for an illusion show. We all understand that no harbor in our nation remains un-politicized right now. But this show of illusion, this show of “wonder,” is a safe refuge.

Beckman is a unicorn: a neat trick in itself. In a time when we question what is morally permissible, I don’t know what it costs us to relax into “wonder.” But there is no doubt that’s it’s refreshing to watch him — and to ask, “How did he do that?”