The veil between worlds is thin indeed in G.K. Chesterton’s Magic, a 1913 comedy in which George Bernard Shaw’s epistolary sparring partner pairs off the forces of reason and the armies of the faithful and sets them at questions of skepticism and belief. An English duke’s young Irish-born niece has been cavorting with a fairy figure in the estate’s garden; if her uncle is content to let her amuse herself, the local doctor, a devoted man of science, fears for her sanity, while the local rector worries a tad about her soul.
The impending arrival of the girl’s brother—at large among the sturdy businesslike inhabitants of America for some time—is the cue for an evening’s entertainment in the drawing room: a conjurer, who’ll presumably charm the young lady and give the more skeptical gentlemen a diverting target. Things don’t quite work out as planned, naturally—or should I say unnaturally? The seemingly inexplicable turns out to be just what a cynic suggests, but other, less easily rationalized incidents will follow, and both hearts and minds will be tested.
Alan Wade’s production generates what magic it musters from the easy, unfussy performances of David Bryan Jackson (as Dr. Grimthorpe), Vincent Clark (the mildly absent-minded duke), and Lynn Steinmetz (the no-nonsense secretary who keeps the duke’s life from dissolving into disorder), and to an extent from the charm of Madeline Ruskin’s Patricia and the charisma of Nick DePinto’s seedy-suave conjurer. Not, alas, from any particular chemistry between them, or from any real crackle about the conflict between the guy who pulls goldfish out of hats and the guy (Daniel Kenner’s blustery big brother) who thinks he knows how all the tricks are done.
The author’s main point is that no one does—that any committed skeptic must admit the possibility of a realm beyond his understanding. As topics for debate go, it’s a diverting one, and as long as Chesterton’s characters are bandying semantics in that realm, the play’s decent fun. When it moves into more melodramatic territory, though, and when it suggests at last that love will surely conquer all? Well, that’s a different kind of trick to pull off, now isn’t it?