Magic Acts and Storytelling On Broadway

Penn and Teller get squashed, Julie Harris shines onstage

LUCIFER'S CHILD Play by William Luce, based on the writings of Isak Dinesen. Directed by Tony Abatemarco. Starring Julie Harris. At the Music Box.

TO a solo portrait gallery that includes Emily Dickinson, Mary Todd Lincoln, Charlotte Br 154>nte, and Sofia Tolstoy, Julie Harris now adds Danish writer Isak Dinesen. Playwright William Luce, Miss Harris's Dickinson collaborator, frames his new biographical play within the context of Dinesen's 1959 visit to America. "Lucifer's Child" opens on New Year's Eve, 1958, as the Danish writer begins packing and sorting out her wardrobe for the coming American visit.

In the cluttered study designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, the eminent teller of tales explains her Pierrot costume ("they may have a masquerade") and expands on the pleasures of the trip to come. At the same time, she enlightens the audience with reminiscences: on her rewarding life as an African farmer until the farm failed; on her marriage to Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke (which left her with a lifelong venereal disease); on her tragically ended love affair with the British hunter Denys Finch Hatto n; on the numerous familial and other relationships that filled and fulfilled her life - a life "from which I have received more ... than I deserved."

Mr. Luce employs the dress parade as a device for illuminating the style and character of his idiosyncratic author. Dinesen identifies all of her costumes by name. (One hat, for instance, is christened "Albatross.") Although the catalog of finery may seem overextended, Harris endows the dress parade with the piquancy and humor which marks the performance as a whole and which contrasts with its darker passages. The lengthy opening makes it clear, in any case, that the trip to America will be a suitably c lad adventure, not simply a literary excursion!

Whether in its comic heights or emotional depths, there is a sustaining integrity to the Harris portrayal, which is vocally characterized by only a slight accent. Some typical fragments illustrate how Luce and his distinguished star fill out the Dinesen portrait. For instance, Dinesen gives the audience a lesson in makeup, using her own special cosmetics. Of her beloved older brother Tommy, she says: "Tommy introduced me to the sky. I introduced him to Shakespeare." It was Tommy who financed the writing of "Seven Gothic Tales," which was "Book-of-the-Month in America."

America, in fact, was "the love affair of my life." Dinesen the storyteller regales the Music Box audience with a tale about a stork, which she illustrates with diagrams in lipstick on the mirror of her huge armoire. She calls fur "the arrogant use of animals." And later she remarks, "I wish I could relive the safaris - but without the carnage." Dinesen is ironic, philosophical, candid. She impersonates favorite family members, including militant suffragette Aunt Bess. In her opinion, "All sorrows can b e borne if you put them into a story." She sings, typically, "Brown eyes, why are you blue?" The title of the play, incidentally, comes from her own self-description and is explained in the course of this absorbing theater memoir.

Director Tony Abatemarco responds sensitively to the anecdotal nature of the play. Noel Taylor designed the costumes; the lighting, which changes subtly to reflect changing moods, is by Pat Collins. Charles Gross composed the incidental music.

PENN & TELLER: THE REFRIGERATOR TOUR

Starring Penn Jillette and Teller. At the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

PENN and Teller are back on Broadway up to their old tricks - plus a number of new ones. The iconoclastic magicians and sleight-of-hand artists subtitle their latest assortment of pranks "The Refrigerator Tour." Their opening hocus pocus explains the title. The partners climb onto a table and cover themselves with a tarpaulin. Zingo! A refrigerator drops from above them. Presto! The unrefrigerated illusionists appear intact. The trick is repeated later on with a duck, an anvil, and some crashing scenery. B ut these fellows are not quacks. The duck survives. And the show moves on.

"The Refrigerator Tour" opens informally at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Members of the assembling audience are invited to come onstage and "examine the Houdini box but do not write on it with the supplied markers." The invitees scribble furiously. ("We can always say we were on a Broadway stage," remarks one of them. "It's a kick.") As for the Houdini box, it remains in place for the Houdini disappearing act to come.

The illusionists - or is it disillusionists? - spend the evening "doing cool things" and explaining them, which, according to Penn, infuriates other magicians. There are prestidigital card tricks, Indian fakir tricks (including Penn's needle-threading feat), and a long sequence with "Mofo, the Psychic Gorilla," assisted by a phalanx of audience volunteers. "Why put this gorilla in a mist?" asks the garrulous Penn.

The "cool things" include a romantic switch on fire eating, in which Penn is joined by Carol Perkins, and Teller's trompe l'oeil rose sketch. The small, almost silent partner Teller proves himself "King of the Animal Traps" as he swings from a trapeze and snaps up the makings of a sandwich from the jaws of a jungle of traps. It's almost Grand Guignolesque. Penn's accompanying spiels are generally amusing, though they could perhaps benefit from editing. The recurrent expletives seem ill-suited to a show with a wide family audience appeal.

Among those listed in the credits are writer Gary Stockdale, singer Yma Sumac [recorded], "director of covert activities" Robert P. Libbon, "director of internal affairs" Mike Wills, set designer John Lee Beatty, and lighting designer Dennis Parichy.

All have contributed to making "The Refrigerator Tour" a tour de force.

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