Magic has a bit of an image problem. When GeniiOnline first launched, an alarming number of my non-magician friends expressed concerns over its understated design. Magic, they told me, is flashy. It’s over the top. One even suggested the site needed sparkles. More than one used a c-word to describe magic that made me die a little inside.
When laypeople think of magic, their thoughts tend to veer more towards Gob Bluth than Guy Hollingworth, which is perhaps why an evening of illusion isn’t many adults’ most desired nights out. And it must be said that once upon a time, magic was exactly the kind of cheeseball spectacle many still believe it to be. The art of magic has been elevated a great deal in recent years, a fact that’s sadly still a secret to much of the general public. Scott Silven may therefore be magic’s best ambassador at the moment, as he crafts a luxurious experience that offers gourmet food, effects designed to activate all five senses, and oh, yeah, some darn fine magic, too.
Earlier this week, I was fortunate to attend Silven’s production of At the Illusionist’s Table, currently in a just about sold-out limited run in New York, which combines fine dining with mentalism, storytelling with sleight of hand. A few dozen guests are seated at a long wooden table lit only by candlelight, nametags encouraging them to chat with the stranger seated opposite them. Silven acts as the evening’s host, charming diners with stories of his childhood in between courses. The food is delicious, as you would expect, but also reflective of the very story Silven is telling; the seafood risotto evokes a rocky beach, the smoke escaping the glass cloche covering the roast chicken a representation of a bonfire. It’s a magnificent pairing of meal and mentalism.
To describe Silven’s performance in any true detail would be to spoil it irrevocably; it is enough to know that it is effective, but subdued. His goal is to delight and amaze, but only in service of the evening’s conceit, which is that this small group of guests has been brought together by forces remarkable to take part in a singular experience. He shares a piece of his story between each course, then leaves to let guests enjoy the food and each other’s company. Silven is the illusionist and we are at his table, but the evening isn’t about him. We aren’t there to see a magician do tricks, rather he is there to make our evening more enjoyable. It’s a very subtle, but important, shift that changes the entire tone of the performance.
Above all, At the Illusionist’s Table feels grownup. It possesses an air of quiet sophistication that other magic shows simply cannot. A child would squirm with impatience as Silven so deftly spun his tale; a gaggle of drunken bridesmaids would be too unruly to appreciate the subtlety of the magic. And that of course, is At the Illusionist’s Table’s biggest flaw: it must be intimate and adult to be effective. It wouldn’t work in a casino ballroom, or even over lunch. The sotto voce murmurings of the black-clad servers would be lost in a room that was even slightly larger. The lighting, the seating, the menu, the whiskey—all of it is perfectly tuned to create a specific atmosphere that becomes exponentially more difficult to replicate the larger it gets.
But that is also At the Illusionist’s Table’s greatest strength. It doesn’t feel like a magic show. It feels unique and strange. Several of my dining companions hadn’t seen magic as an adult—some had never seen live magic ever. And yet not a single person in our group of 34 left the room once during the two-hour experience and, remarkably, no-one ever looked at their phone. The illusionist had convinced them that this magical evening was worth their full attention. And perhaps, in so doing, successfully introduced the idea that magic in general was worth their attention.
The guests saw several impossible things while sitting around that table, but more importantly, Scott Silven showed them the possibility that magic could be more than sexy assistants, top hats and rabbits. Magic can be a totally different c-word.