‘Mindplay’ at Arena Stage is a great magic show but so-so theater

The mentalist tricks are memorable enough to make the disconnected and ineffective sections forgettable.

The title of Mindplay is its most telling feature. It’s not a real word, but rather is a created one — two pre-existing, and distinct, ideas have been compounded to create one whole thing.

That “mind” and “play” have been formed into a compound word for the title of Vinny DePonto’s work makes sense — Mindplay is essentially a compound performance. The production weaves together a mentalist performance with a one-man, autobiographical show about DePonto’s own life and, of course, his mind.

Or, at the very least, tries to. Mindplay, now performing at Arena Stage through March 3, struggles to blend its two overlapping but distinct halves into a cohesive whole, making for a satisfying evening of mentalist tricks but a much less rewarding theatrical work.

Vinny DePonto in ‘Mindplay’ at Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

The first half — we’ll call it the “mind” half — is made up of DePonto’s mentalism, a performance art similar to magic but reliant instead on psychological tricks like mindreading and manipulation. Throughout the show, DePonto performs these tricks on a number of audience members — one by one he appears to read their minds or convince them to give specific answers to his queries.

DePonto’s mentalism is, to be clear, both impressive and entertaining. There’s a diversity of tricks — none of which I will spoil — throughout the performance that keeps the show fresh and kept me stumped. DePonto also has a knack for working with audience members that is funny but doesn’t make them the butt of the joke. Audience participation here is akin more to group therapy than to humiliation.

The rest of Mindplay — the “play” half, if you will — is much less impressive. These scripted sections — Josh Koenigsberg co-writes the show — are framed as an exploration of the mind and how it works, with visual metaphors and artistic symbolism utilized by DePonto as both explanations and visual spectacle. DePonto also delves into his own mind, particularly his struggles with anxiety, and his own past, including his relationship with his late grandparents.

These sections lead in and out of DePonto’s mentalism, but the “play” half of Mindplay might as well be a separate show, considering how disconnected it seems from DePonto’s mentalist tricks. There is nothing, other than perhaps a few vague transition sentences, thematically connecting the insights gleaned from DePonto’s interactions with audience members to his one-man “play.”

Obviously the show changes from night to night, given that audience members’ answers will differ, but the trick setups presumably do not, and the setups seem to exist each in their own world. Put these together with the rest of the performance, and Mindplay becomes no greater than the sum of its parts.

The disjointed nature of Mindplay’s two halves may not be an issue if the “play” portions could stand on their own, but they don’t. Each section is thematically scattershot, jumping from idea to idea with no discernible throughline or connective tissue other than being an “exploration” of the mind. That exploration, for what it’s worth, does not offer any insights beyond direct, surface-level observations: We humans sometimes regret, sometimes revel. We cherish memories and forget other ones. So true.

It does not help that there is a tonal tension between DePonto the autobiographer and DePonto the mentalist. The former is vulnerable in how he speaks about his life and his mind. The latter is essentially a psychological magician, and a magician’s job is, inherently, to trick you. The spectacle of magic is in not knowing what is an illusion and what is real. That difference makes it difficult, as an audience member, to seesaw between DePonto’s moments of emotionality — emotions that I’m sure are very real but are scripted nonetheless — and moments when trusting DePonto is against your better judgment.

Vinny DePonto in Mindplay at Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

To be sure, Mindplay is an overall enjoyable viewing experience. The mentalist tricks are memorable enough to make the disconnected and ineffective sections forgettable. And the staging by Andrew Neisler, along with the design work — scenic by Sibyl Wickersheimer, lighting by Pablo Santiago — makes for an arresting visual spectacle. To put it bluntly, Mindplay is a great magic show.

Mindplay, though, does not want to be just a magic show. That’s clear in how it is performed, in the sections of autobiographical appeals to larger themes and emotions. It’s clear in how it is billed, as a “love letter to the imperfect mind.” It is clear in the fact that Mindplay is being programmed by Arena Stage, one of Washington’s foremost professional theater companies.

Indeed, it is telling that the accompanying executive Producer’s note in Mindplay’s program is largely a defense of its inclusion in Arena’s season. I will withhold judgment on that decision — I am reviewing a performance, not Arena’s governance — and simply say this: If Mindplay is trying to be a work of capital-T Theater, it isn’t trying very hard.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Mindplay plays through March 3, 2024, in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($41–$95) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.).

Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.

The program for Mindplay is online here.

COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in occasional mask-required performances. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.

Arena Stage reveals ‘Mindplay,’ a surprise addition to 2023/24 season (news story, November 18, 2023)


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