England’s Mischief Theatre, the company that brought us the madcap calamitous comedies The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, is back with its latest sidesplitting screw-up spoof, Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion, following its UK tour and a sold-out West End run. Playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at New World Stages (where you can still see the first in the hilarious NYC series), the zany show, written by Mischief’s multi-talented co-founders Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, and based on a character in Magic Goes Wrong, which they created with magicians Penn & Teller, combines active audience participation, improvisation, and video feeds with failed feats of magic, unsuccessful sleight-of-hand, and muddled mind-reading by the troubled illusionist Keith and his incompetent stooge and best friend Steve, along with some tricks that actually do work, much to everyone’s amazement.
The interactive fun starts the minute you enter the theater, when an usher hands you a pencil and a card to fill out, which is then collected and used in the act. Audience members are also invited to try to open a locked safe by guessing its four-digit code, which plays a recurrent role in the wacky night of magic illusions (we later find out that the word “tragic” illusions in the show’s title, though accurate, was a typo on the posters), and volunteers – some real, some played by the bungling Steve in changing sight-gag tee-shirts – are used throughout the performance, both from their seats and on stage, in a wildly funny farce that kept the house (myself included) screaming with laughter, as Mischief never fails to do.
Under the perfectly timed direction of Hannah Sharkey, the terrific team of Lewis as the Mind Mangler and Sayer as his inept assistant and plant, with the aid of Tom Wainwright as the stage manager Percy, make a riotous mess of the tricks, unintentionally exposing the secrets of how they’re supposed to be done, revealing their own backstories and emotions, and bringing the act to a shocking conclusion that you’ll never see coming.
To avoid any spoilers, suffice it to say that the uproarious segments include a range of routines – some, to our surprise, skillfully performed but most disastrously executed (on purpose, in keeping with the signature “goes wrong” theme) – with a Ouija board, $20 bills, Rubik’s cubes scrambled by the audience, a prophetic scroll hidden inside a locked trunk hovering over the stage, accidental self-hypnosis with a pocket watch, attempted escapes from a New World Stages beverage cooler and a guillotine with a timer set at 90 seconds, and absolutely hysterical recreations of the Biblical miracles of Jesus with present-day props.
There are also extended bits of comical clairvoyance with audience participants, which highlight Lewis’s, and Sayer’s, mastery of improv and natural ease with working the house, as well as their expertise at creating flawed but irresistibly likeable underdogs that we can’t help but root for in their laughably foiled efforts to succeed at something.
For the illusions to work (or not!), necessitates the services of a top-notch magic consultant, provided by magician Ben Hart, in addition to the all-important videos, designed by Gillian Tan, and sound by Helen Skiera (one of the running gags is the echoing of “Mind, mind, mind, mind” whenever Keith says the word), with live-feed audio and camerawork that facilitate the magic and mind-reading. Sara Perks’ set, featuring a rectangular proscenium and framed video screen with glitzy marquee lights (lighting by David Howe) and movable elements like the cooler and guillotine, and costumes by Roberto Surace (including Steve’s funny tee-shirts), are well-suited to the parodic theme, heightened by composer Steve Brown’s original music.
The production comes with a trigger warning that strobe lights, fog and haze effects, loud noises, theatrical blood, adult language, and possible adult themes are used, but if you’re in the mood for some ridiculous escapist fun presented by Mischief’s unsurpassed masters of comedy, Mind Mangler will mostly trigger your non-stop laughter. And who isn’t in the mood for that? It’s absolute theater magic.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
Before you go – and you should! – you can watch the trailer below: