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A percussive, techno-symphonic score blares as Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt stumbles through a choreographic fever dream at the outset of Hannah and Martin. Bumped from all directions by shadowy figures, she grasps for connections. Then, when the music stops, she strings together a daisy chain of them, charting a mere three degrees of separation between her lover and mentor, Martin Heidegger, and the leader of the Third Reich.

“Hitler has blood on his hands,” Hannah (Elizabeth Rich) muses, “and he shook hands with Himmler, and he shook hands with the Minister of Education, and he shook hands with Martin Heidegger.” In Kate Fodor’s intriguing, albeit fictionalized, historical chronicle, that litany is sobering, especially for a woman of Hannah’s philosophical gifts. How to reconcile the egocentric, romantic Heidegger who taught her to love and to think with the Heidegger who later championed notions of “existence beyond worldliness” while flanked by Nazi storm troopers? What to make of the mentor who betrayed his own mentor over questions of race but who wooed Hannah with literary passion, first offering her a symbolic bite of apple and then nibbling the hem of her dress while asking, “Will you allow me to dismantle your silken armor with kisses?”

Heidegger (John Lescault) is in the midst of writing Being and Time, a formative existentialist work, at about the time he’s seducing Hannah, a first-year philosophy student in one of his classes. Married to a Nazi sympathizer and fiercely anti-Communist himself, the professor is as inspiring as his vulnerable, awkward student needs him to be. “Questions are to be asked, not answered,” he tells her early on. “Learning is easy—it’s accumulation. Thinking is something else.”

Under his tutelage, Hannah blossoms, “inflamed” with curiosity and capable of carving an intellectual life for herself when Heidegger mumbles something about appearances and sends her off to study in another city. She flees to the United States as the Nazis rise to power but returns to Europe after the war to testify at the Nuremberg trials and to weigh whether to support a now-discredited Heidegger’s attempts to re-establish himself as a teacher in postwar Germany. If she decides against him, there’s no play, of course, but Fodor manages to make getting to a foregone conclusion intellectually engaging and verbally stimulating.

The playwright is abetted in performance by the director and leading lady who helped her bring Hannah and Martin to life at its Chicago premiere two years ago, as well as by Tony Cisek’s scarlet-framed setting, with walls and floor covered in scratched-out German phrases, and Dan Covey’s lighting, which freezes the characters in public spotlights before sending them scurrying into private shadows. Jeremy B. Cohen’s staging for Theater J finds a good deal of humor to leaven the script’s central crises of conscience, a tactic that’s aided by a strong cast. Rich is pretty extraordinary as Hannah, headstrong yet delicate of sensibility, bringing rigor to both the character’s emotional outbursts and her arguments. She’s nicely matched by Lescault’s smooth, intellectually aloof Heidegger, who seems not to sense the emotional chaos he leaves in his wake. Also quite fine are Kimberly Schraf as Heidegger’s surprisingly empathetic monster of a wife and Steven Carpenter as Hannah’s thoughtful, ineffectual husband, both of whom manage to hold their ground as the title characters are being buffeted by the play’s swirling philosophical and social themes.

Those themes may strike some observers as problematic. But even if the notion of rehabilitating a Nazi figurehead, or excusing a brilliant thinker for ethical lapses, strikes you as a nonstarter—particularly in an age when right-wing politicos are once again focusing on academia—you’re likely to be swept up by Fodor’s arguments, especially when her title characters push each other into verbal traps and erupt in spitting vituperation.

I think I’ve figured out how Ricky Jay does it. The “card artist” extraordinaire selected me as one of his audience participants on opening night at the Studio Theatre, inviting me up onstage to sit next to him as he performed his prestidigitory miracles, turning threes into queens and producing aces pretty much at will from a seemingly ordinary pack of cards. Sure, these feats in Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants amaze patrons who sit a few feet away. But I was closer, wearing new prescription glasses, my powers of observation heightened by years of, well, observation.

It was easy from my catbird seat, just to the right of Jay, with a clear view of the table and cards and an ability to see the shuffles from behind, to tell that the usual dismissive explanations—the ones that make perfect sense when you’re sitting in the front row—don’t hold water. The cards, viewed from up close (I was allowed to touch them, hold them, turn them over), aren’t marked or shaved in a way that can be easily discerned, and Jay’s shuffles, while they must necessarily be rearranging the deck in trickily deceptive ways, look to be genuine mixes of two stacks of cards. I did once see him deal off something other than the top of the deck, but it was at about the moment he explained that he was doing exactly that, so I suspect I was supposed to see it.

But when I lowered my head to about the level of his shoulder and peeked around his right biceps, I could sometimes see the top three or four cards in a shuffle. At one point I’m pretty sure I saw a red ace among those top cards. Aha! Not that he, himself, seemed to be looking down, and as his next trick was the production of a spade royal flush, the relevance of my red ace wasn’t immediately apparent. But hey, I saw it.

Because the first thing you notice about Jay when he comes out onstage is his sleeves, which stop a good seven inches above his wrists, I decided I should check out his jacket pretty carefully. Those sleeves stay tightly up near his elbows, and during the half hour or so that I sat near him, he never once touched them. The jacket’s lapels aren’t wide enough to hide cards, and though his tie is, he never touched that, either. His fleshy forearms and soft, stubby-fingered hands—no evident surgical pockets, incidentally (skeptics always consider all possibilities, no matter how macabre)—stayed pretty consistently on the table. The one time they didn’t, it was to bring out three bent cards from another deck entirely.

I figured I wouldn’t be able to see much when he played three-card monte—it is, after all, a sucker’s game even on the street—but I did make it a point to ignore two of the bent cards, anyway, and concentrate on the third one. Even from a distance of 15 inches, I had nothing. Subatomic rearrangement of the card faces, maybe? Mass hypnosis? Magnets inside the table that pull multicolored iron filings into different patterns? I swear I could see one corner of my chosen card at all times, and it went facedown a queen and came up a three. And vice versa. Repeatedly. (Note to self: Never, never play that game.)

Throughout all of this, director David Mamet (yes, that David Mamet, who’s made use of Jay’s character-conjuring ability in a number of movies) has the magician keep up a steady stream of patter about everything from mind-reading toucans to such prestidigitation-minded predecessors as D.C.’s own Edward Pendleton, whose funeral, says Jay, was attended by President James Buchanan. There are also gambling poems and jokes delivered in a disarmingly garrulous growl, which I labored mightily to ignore, knowing it was designed to distract me from the sophisticated counting and rearranging of cards that pretty much had to be going on as Jay shuffled and dealt. It took a Herculean effort, but I’m sure I laughed less than the rest of the crowd.

And that allowed me to concentrate on the more ornate tricks—the sort where, say, Jay turns half the cards faceup and the other half facedown, shuffles a few times, and then spreads out the cards on the table to reveal that the four aces have migrated faceup to the center of the deck while all the other cards have obligingly turned their backs. Or the poker game in which, after doing perhaps 15 other tricks, he deals out five perfect hands of escalating value, establishing that he can keep at least 25 of his 52 assistants organized and accessible in his head at once.

And from my privileged vantage point, never more than inches from the fingers that dealt the cards on opening night, I can authoritatively say that it’s clear how Ricky Jay manages the tricks with which he astounds the crowd out front. Not mysterious at all. It’s magic, pure and simple.

Lulu is not, strictly speaking, fabulous in Phoenix Theatre DC’s Lulu Fabulous, but she’s certainly perky and plucky. Also single and smart and determined to find her way in the world, even if finding her way means abandoning the dating scene in Washington for the less promising wilds of Maine in winter. It’s easy to understand why Lulu (Mary C. Davis) wouldn’t feel tied to D.C., given the losers she generally falls for and the hot-yoga sessions that stand in for her social life. And if Maine offers little besides distant family connections and an incentive to reconnect with her troubled mother, well, she’s not doing much else that seems to matter.

D.C.-based Callie Kimball has a bright way with a line and a vivid imagination for characters, and in a perfect world that would make her a playwright. But while you have to admire her ability to generate laughs from insult-spitting Siamese fighting fish (Alex Perez and Patrick Bussink, flapping silk fins for all they’re worth) and the World Trade Center crash (“Don’t you think the folks at 7-Eleven are happy it didn’t happen in July?”), she is not, in Lulu Fabulous, doing anything that could really be called playwriting. Rather, she has assembled an amusing series of sketches and allowed Bridget O’Leary to stage them in a manner suggesting that her title character is a homegrown stage incarnation of Bridget Jones, minus the diary. The mostly female opening-night crowd signaled its approval with much laughter and the occasional heart-felt sigh.CP