Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion, starring the genial, but daffy, Henry Lewis, is part of the “gone wrong” franchise by Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields: Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Play that Goes Wrong, the latter of which is still playing in the same theater complex as Mind Mangler. Like its sister shows, this is a goofy, but intelligent mix of silliness and sophistication.
Lewis calls himself “the human lie detector” and “medal winning master of the mind.” (Every time the word “mind” is uttered, it is echoed electronically, a running shtick that is, for some reason, always funny.)
He refers to the cards each audience member filled out, each revealing a personal secret. These cards will become a large part of the show’s guessing game format.
He portentously refers to a safe which is ostentatiously visible and challenges the audience to open it, segueing into his “mind control” mode asking an audience member to think of a color. Of course he, himself, holds an orange—hint, hint!
Lewis reveals some autobiographical details with his tongue firmly in his cheek: he is a proficient sleep-writer and having peculiar versions of the five senses such as being able to guess people’s first names, a skill he awkwardly and humorously displays by questioning and audience member, at first incorrectly guessing his name.
He delves into his disastrous marital status as well as his touring experiences, including a witty tangent about a town called Nearby.
He is assisted by his Stooge, Steven (co-author Sayer) who acts like a slightly demented groupie/cum puppy dog. He is physically the opposite of Lewis who is large, but his eager-beaver presence helps keep Mind Mangler running smoothly on its surreal comic tracks. As a “volunteer” from the audience he runs down the aisle wearing a “volunteer” t-shirt and fudges Lewis’ attempts at card tricks.
The show flirts with hypnosis, mind reading, self-deprecation, audience participation, music, Rubik’s cubes, photo montages, Ouija boards and music hall shtick, all in a messy—perhaps, a bit prolonged—exhibition of clearly doubtful authenticity.
His other assistant is Percy (Tom Wainwright), the hardworking Stage Manager who brings bits of furniture and technical devices on and off stage as well as carrying a video camera into the audience to film attendees whose images are plastered on a screen.
Throughout the show video projections by Jillian Tan add to the merriment while David Howe’s incredibly agile lighting heightens the excitement and helps accentuate the act’s punch lines. As for Roberto Surace’s costumes, well, Steve’s t-shirts are funny and Lewis’ colorful suits mark him as the slightly second-rate magician that he portrays.
Sara Perks created a set that includes a stage-within-a-stage, with bright colors all over the place, a perfectly giddy environment for mind mangling.
Hannah Sharkey, the show’s director, had the difficult task of pacing a show which needs to feel improvised. Although Mind Mangler sags a bit in the second act, she mostly succeeds in keeping up the momentum.
Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion (extended through January 28, 2024)
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.MindManglerNYC.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission