The day may arrive when writer-actor Albie Selznick declares his magic-infused theatrical performance “Smoke and Mirrors” a finished product, but audiences probably shouldn’t hold their breath. Given that Selznick is a self-described perfectionist and workaholic — and because there are always new illusions to learn — “Smoke and Mirrors” could continue to evolve as long as its creator is willing to tinker.
“It has been a constant rewriting, working, rewriting, working,” he said. “It’s just never good enough. I keep seeing ways it could be better. But I feel like this is the closest it has ever been to being as good as it can be.”
Imperfect or otherwise, the autobiographical show has been embraced by audiences and critics alike, earning Critic’s Choice laurels from the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly. The current version, directed by David Schweizer, is back at the Odyssey Theatre through Dec. 20 after playing there earlier this year from January through March.
The seed of “Smoke and Mirrors” was developed in an acting class with coach-to-the-stars Larry Moss approximately 15 years ago. In 2010, Selznick took an early version to the Hollywood Fringe Festival and subsequently produced it at Theatre Unlimited in North Hollywood. Engagements followed at the Santa Monica Playhouse, the Promenade Playhouse and a yearlong run at the Road Theatre, where Selznick has been a member and frequent performer.
Concurrent with the Odyssey engagement, Selznick has instigated Magic Mondays. For five Monday nights during the run, some of his celebrated illusionist friends from the Magic Castle — where Selznick is a lifetime member — will take the stage to perform their own feats. Selznick said that several of these performers are, like him, Jewish.
“I’m generalizing here, but magicians tend to be nerdy kids and introverts. They’re usually not athletic,” Selznick said. “On the outside, they’re scary and powerful, like the Wizard of Oz. On the inside, they’re these nerdy little kids trying to cover up the fact that they can’t get the girl. I think Jewish people like that either become comedians, Hollywood producers or magicians.”
As he relates in “Smoke and Mirrors,” Selznick was a frightened, introverted little boy who turned to magic after the death of his father, Sheldon Selesnick, when he was 9. The older Selesnick gave Albie a magic kit. Feats of wonder became not simply an escape, but possibly a way to help keep his father alive or maybe even bring him back.
“I’ve never been good at relaxing,” Selznick said. “When I was a kid, if I wasn’t doing four magic shows a week at birthday parties, I didn’t think I was doing enough. It could be a possibility that I was trying in some ways to make up for the fact that I didn’t have a dad, or to get him, subconsciously, to come back if I was a good magician.”
“Smoke and Mirrors” contains plenty of illusions, sleight of hand, escapes, live birds and “how did he do that?” kinds of tricks. But the show also has an undercurrent of darkness as well. In addition to assistance from a giant rabbit; Harry Houdini’s widow, Bess; and a spooky oracle who guesses the secrets of audience members, “Smoke and Mirrors” offers Selznick ruminating on themes of life, loss, fear, mystery and death.
A magic show that is just tricks and no story is far less effective, according to Selznick, as the audience will spend all its time trying to figure out how the tricks work.
“I love magic with a purpose,” he said. “When you see a really good magic show that has some kind of hook to it, I think you can sort of suspend your disbelief and be in that place when you were a kid, when everything was possible.”
Trained across an array of disciplines, Selznick co-founded the juggling circus trio The Mums, which opened for a number of bands in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a tightrope walker in the Olivia Newton-John movie-musical “Xanadu” and took to the wire again as a daredevil Mercutio in Deaf West Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
He has worked steadily as an actor in commercials, film and TV since the mid-1980s. He played a detective turned villain on “The Young and the Restless” and had a recurring role as Rabbi Ben opposite Brooke Shields for two seasons on the sitcom “Suddenly Susan.”
When Selznick enrolled in Moss’ acting class in the mid-1990s, Moss was not aware of any of Selznick’s other skills — until he assigned the students the task of taking a profound incident from their life, relating it and then putting it on stage. Selznick recounted the story of a poignant encounter he had with a little boy named Nigel while performing in New Zealand. In telling the story, Selznick includes magic, and lo these many years later, Nigel is the climax of “Smoke and Mirrors.”
“I think everybody in the class was very excited by his abilities as a magician and by the story that came out of him,” said Moss, who saw the completed “Smoke and Mirrors” many years later.
“It was a beautiful juxtaposition between humanity and vulnerability with an expertise of his technique. It was a wonderful balance. You feel a thrill when you watch your students succeed with something that is really valuable artistically.”
“Smoke and Mirrors” continues 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 20 at the Odyssey Theatre. smokeandmirrorsmagic.com.