The conjurer Harry Houdini once wrote that “what the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” Houdini’s pronouncement on sleight of hand applies equally to affairs of the heart—an irony not lost on playwright Rinne Groff, whose play Orange Lemon Egg Canary concerns illusions theatrical and romantic. The play begins with a typical magic act. Great (Steve Cuiffo, an actor and magician sometimes billed as the Amazing Russello) strolls among the audience, offering card tricks. With hair as rumpled as his blue tuxedo shirt, Great eventually assumes center stage and launches a well-rehearsed line of patter. “Thanks for coming tonight,” he tells us. “I don’t know what I would have done without you. . . . You do most of the work, you see. That’s my trick; that’s the trick.”
Great may trick us—or, rather, he makes us trick ourselves—but he’s also susceptible to deception. Lulled by flattery, great sex, and self-importance, he takes a shine to gamine waitress Trilby (Aubrey Dollar) and promises to teach her magic. He never credits her own desires and motives, never imagines this Trilby may not need a Svengali. Great also underestimates his former partner China (Laura Kai Chen), now devising a show of her own. Nor can he sense Henrietta, once his grandfather’s assistant, a feather-clad presence who haunts the stage’s margins. Henrietta offers a particularly acerbic take on the magician’s appeal: “Everybody loves to be fooled. Everybody loves to be cheated and misled.”
Of course, if Groff and director Michael Sexton are doing the fooling, there’s much to love. In past works, Groff has thrust herself into other worlds and languages—mathematics, mechanics, air traffic controlling—and she seizes upon the rituals and jargon of magicianship with equal zeal. Yet she never lets her passion for the technical run away with her. She and Sexton ground the heady ideas and elaborate metaphor in the messy world of human emotion, offering a play that makes one think and feel—a hell of a trick.