MIND MANGLER Brings The Magic Off-Broadway — Review
Mischief Theatre is branching out. Mind Mangler: A Night of Tragic Illusion breaks loose from the comedy troupe’s well-honed formula of collapsing scenery, grievous actor injury and general theatrical mayhem. But are the results quite as dumbly satisfying?
Yes and no. Mind Mangler is a lesser Mischief, oddly paced and afflicted with a case of split identity. Yet it remains enjoyably silly and a showcase for the company’s considerable skill in working a crowd.
Mischief’s breakout The Play That Goes Wrong first arrived on Broadway in 2017, and has been happily ensconced at off-Broadway’s New World Stages since 2019, where Mangler now also runs. Following the success of Wrong in London, where it has run since 2012, Mischief has grown into a global brand – The Comedy About A Bank Robbery played the West End for four years, while Peter Pan Goes Wrong just wrapped up Broadway and Los Angeles runs ahead of a London return later this month.
Mind Mangler is a spin-off from yet another Mischief creation, Magic Goes Wrong, which followed a group of magicians presenting a charity event gone awry. Mischief regulars Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer were among Magic’s ensemble cast, playing mediocre magician the Mind Mangler and his hapless assistant respectively. Lewis, Sayer and Henry Shields have now crafted a two-hander focused just on that bickering duo, as the Mangler puts on a terrible magic show of his own.
Well — not that terrible. The Mangler actually pulls off several impressive tricks, including audience mind-reading and a guillotine illusion. Mischief apparently concluded that a magic show with absolutely no successful magic wouldn’t fly. These tricks are satisfying but also give the show a certain tonal whiplash, as they will often directly follow a skit where the Mangler is entirely hopeless.
Mangler also does not escalate in nearly as satisfying a fashion as Play or Pan Goes Wrong. The greatest pleasure of those shows is one mishap cascading directly into the next, whisking us satisfyingly through a breathless array of disasters. Under Hannah Sharkey’s stop-and-start direction, Mangler is more unsteady, and also overlong at 2 hours with intermission.
The show also fumbles a few running gags. Sayer’s many appearances in the audience feel expected when they should surprise. And a recurring bit about the Mangler’s ex-wife bleeding him dry in a divorce recurs just a few too many times.
Lewis himself is so enjoyably goofy that his delightful presence helps cover for a lot of these hiccups. Sure, he and Sayer give basically the same performance in every Mischief show. But there is something comfortably familiar about the pair’s endless bickering and inevitable making up. One does feel in safe hands.
Where the pair truly excel is in their interplay with the audience. By establishing upfront that the Mangler is a dolt, Mangler unlocks a particularly unhinged mania in its audience interaction. My crowd was heckling the Mangler one moment, then confessing dark secrets to him the next. Lewis controls these interactions expertly, and knows exactly where to tease out a bit and when to move on.
Mischief could easily do variations on the Goes Wrong formula for eternity. It is admirable that the company is instead intent on trying out new things. While Mind Mangler is only somewhat successful, this troupe is always a pleasure to spend an evening with.
Mind Mangler is now in performance through March 3, 2024 at New World Stages.