Houdini Speaks to the Living by Beth Burns and Patrick Terry follows Harry Houdini encountering Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1926 during the former’s lecture tours. Houdini famously spoke on debunking mediums and spiritualists who claim to speak to the dead, believing such individuals to simply utilize stage magic to profit off of the suffering and faith of others, while Doyle firmly believed in Spiritualism as a philosophy and science which would aid mankind’s enlightenment. This production utilizes verbatim theatre, with roughly 75% of the dialogue to be drawn from written documents by Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle including their correspondence with one another.
Staged at the York Rite Masonic Hall, Houdini Speaks to the Living utilizes its venue by setting the whole production during one of Houdini’s lectures. As a result, the audience is incorporated into the event both as characters and set pieces. Given the lecture style of the performance, as well as the instances in which Houdini (Patrick Terry) performs magic tricks, the audience is frequently called upon to assist as well as act as a sounding board for Houdini and Doyle (Robert Matney). As for the aforementioned tricks, Terry’s grandiose showmanship certainly lends itself to the performance, making seemingly mundane objects take on supernatural, illusory attributes. The cynical bravado with which he showcases his talents to make reality seem mystical stands front and center of this production given that these feats are the main force behind Houdini’s debunking of spiritual mediums. To pair off against Terry’s open-minded skepticism, Matney’s Doyle, a man seeking the science behind religion, sticks mainly to his oratory skills to defend his stance. Perpetually clad with the face of a melancholy believer, Matney’s speeches, while grounded in faith and supposed fact, pull at the hearts of the audience to counterbalance Terry’s pulling of the mind. Matney pleads with the audience in desperation in hopes of finding those who stand on his side of faith. Between the two there is a clear respect for each other in how they speak. It’s evident that neither wishes to offend, but their academic and spiritual pride demands that they press onward.
However, it’s in this intriguing debate that we encounter some troubles with the script. Upon hearing of this new play, I was immediately reminded of Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, a play in which Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis debate one another on the existence of God and an afterlife (both staunch believers in opposition to one another). The play works because the two men continually feed each other’s arguments with their statements, building the enormity of the conversation while maintaining respectful stances. In the end there’s no right side. Conversely, Houdini Speaks to the Living offers an equal level of professional discourse, but the debate often feels one-sided. Rather than allow both men serious consideration, the script typically gives Doyle a chance to state a historical or personal incident that “proves” his beliefs, whereupon the challenged Houdini uses parlor tricks to disprove him with ease. It feels incredibly one-sided, and while presumably most of us in the audience (myself included) are not believers in spiritual mediums calling upon the dead it feels at times that we are not listening to a debate but witnessing Doyle’s faith being beaten down. Perhaps this is a Last Session for a more cynical era, but ultimately I felt Doyle’s arguments became less intriguing and more pitiable. However, without wishing to spoil, there is a rather sudden and jarring shift of tone near the end that arguably pushes both men back onto an equal level, and is an exquisite touch in showcasing them as both men of faith and logic taken to opposite extremes.
Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed Houdini Speaks to the Living despite my grievances with the script; I simply wished we could have had more time to see Doyle counter Houdini’s bombardment. Perhaps that’s not what Burns and Terry were aiming at, but it certainly felt that way. Terry and Matley given excellent performances, maintaining the accuracy and integrity of their historical counterparts in how they present themselves physically and personally, and the seldom technical effects aided the atmosphere nicely. Could it use some work? Yes. But as is,Houdini Speaks to the Living is a quality piece of theatre that any lover of history, performance, magic, or debate won’t want to miss.
The Hidden Room’s Houdini Speaks to the Living continues playing at the York Rite Masonic Hall from October 26th through 30th at 8pm every night.