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(photo by Dixie Sheridan)

George Demas plays master prestidigitator Harry Houdini in Axis Company world premiere (photo by Dixie Sheridan)

Axis Company
One Sheridan Sq. between West Fourth & Washington Sts.
Thursday - Saturday through April 5, $30-$0, 8:00

In 1930, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of his short-term friend and colleague, “Who was the greatest medium-baiter of modern times? Undoubtedly Houdini. Who was the greatest physical medium of modern times? There are some who would be inclined to give the same answer.” That dichotomy lies at the heart of Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini, in which Axis Company artistic director Randy Sharp examines the unusual relationship between magician and mysticism debunker Harry Houdini and spiritualism believer and Sherlock Holmes creator Doyle, brought together by a 1922 contest sponsored by Scientific American to find a true clairvoyant. In the eighty-five-minute one-act play, running at Axis’s home stage at One Sheridan Square through April 5, Doyle (Spencer Aste) and Houdini (George Demas) are essentially seeking the same thing; both men want to contact a dead relative through a medium, Doyle desperate to converse with his beloved son Kingsley, Houdini determined to speak again with his dear mother. But while Doyle is convinced that there is no death, that there is an afterlife, Houdini aggressively seeks to discredit potential fakes, such as Ralph Grimshaw (Brian Linden), who appear to be in the spirit game only for the money and fame. Doyle also believes that Houdini himself has special powers, telling him, “Let us see if you are able to ‘self-liberate’ from the ironclad manacles of disbelief,” while Houdini insists that there is no otherworldly magic to what he does: “I am not a shape shifter, medium spirit contactor, automatic writer, ghost fairy photographer, or anything of that nature,” he tells his mechanist, Jim Collins (David Crabb). To settle their differences, Doyle and Houdini participate in a demonstration in which popular medium Margery “Mina” Crandon (Lynn Mancinelli), with the help of her husband, Leroi (Brian Barnhart), will attempt to prove once and for all that the spirit world exists. “You are a shining example of an enlightened conduit to the beyond,” Doyle pronounces, while Houdini explains, “We shall expose her to the Scientific American League of Shills and Collaborators for all the good it’ll do me.”

(photo by Dixie Sheridan)

Mina Crandon (Lynn Mancinelli) gets in the Margery Box while attempting to contact the great beyond (photo by Dixie Sheridan)

Demas has a ball as Houdini, the pompous, conflicted mama’s boy in a ratty old jacket and pathetic shoes, sporting a hairstyle that is nearly a character unto itself, and Aste is solid as the dapper Doyle. But Sharp, who created an intoxicating atmosphere for her previous Axis production, the postapocalyptic Last Man Club, never achieves much of a flow with Nothing on Earth, which is constrained by a disjointed narrative and sudden, confusing plot jumps. Too many elements get lost in the dark, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. But individual scenes excel, making Nothing on Earth a mixed bag of tricks.

(The March 29 performance will be followed by a Q&A with members of the cast and crew and historical consultant William Kalush, author of The Secret Life of Houdini and executive director of the Conjuring Arts Research Center on West Thirtieth St.)

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