By Alex Miller
If you haven’t heard of Harry Houdini, you must have been born yesterday. The illusionist, stuntman, and escapist influenced every magician from David Blaine to David Copperfield. His name alone has entered the lexicon to describe someone who disappeared in some unbelievable fashion, by being coy or deceptive, or through pure magic. But tonight, we meet the only man who ever truly “pulled a Houdini.”
A white backdrop has a red curtain, some shackles, and gold decorative cord draped over it. Music Director Chris Piro introduces Tom Frueh’s Houdini with a lively vaudevillian number. Mr. Frueh sings, “It’s time to go on, they’re waiting for me,” as he twirls in his tuxedo, both hands in front of him as if ready to pull out a dove or bouquet from out of his sleeves.
Once the music ends, he tells us that nothing and nobody can keep him down, all the while holding his lower‑right abdomen. You’ve probably heard he often had people test his strength by punching him in the gut. This is something different, though. Houdini is much too conceited to believe he’s human, so he doesn’t get his ailment checked out. Fatal mistake.
But this was the man everyone grew to know as Houdini, a short man too large for his stature. He was born Erik Weisz, who, at nine years old, began his career as “Erich the Prince of the Air,” performing as a trapeze artist to make extra money in New York City. His mother Cecília Steiner was always supportive of her boy, and her death was difficult for him to bear. Mr. Frueh’s Houdini laments the loss of his mother, one of his only two loves, along with his wife Bess.
Various feats of his talent are mentioned, such as his aerial escape from a straightjacket, as he dangled precariously from the Sun‑Telegraph Building in Pittsburgh. He originally says it is “thousands of feet in the air,” but is humbled to learn it is only hundreds of feet tall. He also escaped from the same prison in Washington D.C.’s Murder Row that held President Garfield’s assassin. We see a rather hilarious bit in which Houdini gets nude in silhouette behind the backdrop, while prison guards check every cavity to make sure he isn’t hiding something.
Houdini was an ardent skeptic. He waved off death threats as mere tomfoolery, and once challenged any soothsayer to prove his or her ability to win a reward of $10,000, which in 2019 money would be nearly $260,000.
Mr. Frueh’s flawless vocal and acting skills are otherworldly. He has the power to control a crowd, not unlike Houdini himself, and he keeps us guessing what Houdini will do next. He is as smooth as a man selling snake oil that turns out to be real medicine once you take it home.
We see Houdini wince in pain, and Mr. Frueh is quite adept at playing a tortured man. One can almost feel his agony. Ultimately, Houdini died from peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. Until the very end, he refused to believe death was greater than he was.
The part that sticks out as odd is the finale. The last five to ten minutes of the show appear to contradict Houdini’s disbelief in the spiritual. He flies through another realm looking for his mother in this very surreal, otherworldly sequence that I couldn’t make heads or tails of.
Nevertheless, Mr. Frueh sells us Houdini, in the same way Houdini sold himself to the world. In portraying a man who often cast off clothing to show the world he had nothing to hide, Mr. Frueh gives us an intimate look at a showman who was humbled only by mortality, with nothing up his sleeves.
Performed by Tom Frueh
Directed by Jen Jurek
Music Directed by Chris Piro
October 28 at 7PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.