A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union, 292-7676, $10-$42 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. select matinees ends Sun., Nov. 18
THE MOST dangerous illusions are the commonplace self-deceits we use to ward off despair. We delude ourselves that we are safe in a dangerous world or, as the arrogant aristocrat Calogero does in Grand Magic, that we are loved. But if we acquiesce to the theatrical illusion so expertly conjured by director Mladen Kiselov, we find that submission is a joy.
Prim Calogero (John Procaccino) refuses to let his wife out of his sight, hugging close to her side across the beach sand that covers the stage as he offends the other guests at the seaside resort with high-handed insults. When Otto, a shabby, huckstering magician (Ken Ruta) makes Calogero's wife disappear—and she does, running off secretly with her lover—he is unbelieving. "I am a gentleman," Calogero insists with stiff jaw, as if immune to defeat, and clings to the self-preserving lie that his wife is faithful. To save his own skin, the magician gives the vexed husband a box and insists that his wife will reappear only if he has faith in her. In farcical turns, Otto is forced to lead the trapped Calogero into still deeper illusions that shield him from sorrow but ruin his life as he denies reality altogether.
Eduardo de Filippo always insisted that his 1949 play was only about a man's belief in his wife, but it's hard to overlook how Calogero and his greedy family demonstrate the hollowness of the ruling class. In its day, the piece must have seemed a commentary on the illusions that brought Europe to ruin and, after the war, sustained the struggle to recover.
The flawless cast that boasts Marianne Owen as Otto's shrewish wife, Zaira, and David Pichette's turn as a dizzy police inspector (there are also stunning sets and lighting design) makes one hungry for more of de Filippo's elegant, commedia-influenced work. More accessible than Pirandello, he is modern without the crushing nihilism that burdened his contemporaries. Grand Magic is a rich tonic that restored this jaded scribe's flagging faith in the power of theater's magic. Not only is it grand, it's enchanting.