In 1905, the chief constable of the Newport, South Wales, police department declaimed the “impenetrability” of the local prison, a boast that drew the attention of a visiting American named Ehrich Weiss, who was developing a reputation as an escape artist and, so, decided to accept the “challenge.” As an added impediment, he had himself locked in one of the prison’s cells stark naked, his clothes having been secured in a separate cell. But despite this extra hurdle, a few minutes later, Mr. Weiss somehow emerged fully dressed from the prison, an embarrassing outcome for the overconfident constable. Of course, then as now, Mr. Weiss was much better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini.
This true story is the inspirational starting point for playwright and actor Daniel LLewelyn-Williams’ A Regular Little Houdini, which mixes fact, fiction, and a bit of Welsh myth (who doesn’t want to believe in the Cornish cyclops?) into a riveting one-man yarn that grows more and more epic as it goes along. But, to be told properly, the audience must first summon their own imaginations and leave behind the show’s cramped black box performance space just off of Park Avenue for Newport’s architectural crown jewel, the Lyceum Theatre, where LLewelyn-Williams, as a shabbily besuited magician who has just lugged a curious suitcase onstage, wants to tell us how he got there. If you can make this imaginative journey, and, trust me, you won’t enjoy this minimally staged production if you can’t, then, soon enough, you’ll be taken back to a time when Newport must have seemed like the center of the universe, especially to a poor Edwardian schoolboy with dreams of becoming the next Houdini.
Once the magician, whose name is Alan, assumes the identity of his 10-year-old self, we learn that his life’s ambition came into focus after seeing Houdini put one over on his grandfather, the town’s chief constable. But it’s not only Houdini’s talent and fame that the impressionable lad admires; he also feels connected to the brash magician-turned-escape-artist, because, just like himself, Houdini once had nothing.
It’s this class consciousness that gives the show its emotional and intellectual depth, as the wide-eyed Alan takes us on a youthfully breathless tour of his hometown, which includes an introduction to his family, all of whom seem caring and supportive, if also realistic and, of course, economically vulnerable. LLewelyn-Williams voices all of these other personas, too, and it’s wonderful to watch him ping pong between them with such clarity and conviction.
There are also a few major verbal set pieces in this set-less show, and they’re all absolutely captivating, thanks to the energetic vividness with which LLewelyn-Williams conveys them. Two of the stories center on the Newport Transporter Bridge, a technological marvel that, when it was built, attested to the burgeoning port city’s industrial importance. And, at least in the minds of both Alan and his hero Houdini, it also served as the perfect place from which to defy death.
The show’s other lynchpin story is about a 1909 disaster at the Newport docks, when during a construction project, a collapse buried the workers, killing most of them. With tears welling up in his eyes, Alan, who is touched personally by the accident, offers up a thoroughly loving memorial to everyone who lost their lives. This real and monumental tragedy in Welsh history should be more widely known, and, thanks to LLewelyn-Williams, it might be.
If there’s a criticism to be levelled at A Regular Little Houdini, it’s that it could be longer. LLewelyn-Williams, director Joshua Richards, and composer Meg Cox (the only three people listed in the program) seem to have been on their own in crafting the show, which might explain its brevity. And, if that’s true, it’s too bad, because I imagine LLewelyn-Williams has a lot more to say about the people of Newport, South Wales.
So, yes, that’s my criticism: please, tell me more.
A Regular Little Houdini (through December 31, 2017)
Flying Bridge Theatre Limited
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour and 5 minutes with no intermission