LA Theater Review: THE EXPERT AT THE CARD TABLE (The Broad Stage in Santa Monica)

by Tony Frankel on July 23, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Suave and debonair Guy Hollingworth is not only a full-time British barrister (specializing in intellectual property law) but a card conjuror of renown. When a friend had to back out of an appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe, Hollingworth took his slot – but with one caveat: the friend’s sleight-of-hand show contained tricks based on the 1902 book The Expert at the Card Table, often referred to as the Bible of card magic, and the programs were already printed with that title. The book has never been out of print because it contains the most meticulous and invaluable discourse on cheating at cards that has ever been written, containing techniques such as dealing from the bottom of the deck and doing false shuffles.

The Expert at the Card Table - The Broad Stage in Santa MonicaSince the book’s title was already incorporated, Hollingworth would mention aspects of the anonymously-penned work alongside his nimble and adroit legerdemain. Naturally, the audience was intrigued, but it turns out the story behind the creation of the book reads like an Agatha Christie who-done-it, full of deceit, wealth and murder across America and Australia.

Now, with twelve years of sleuthing into the origins of the book, Hollingworth, guided by the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre Company in London and director Neil Patrick Harris, combines his entrancing prestidigitation, based on the cons described in the book, with a fascinating story of the intrigue behind its creation. The result, now receiving its US premiere at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, is a mesmerizing look into the world of cons and conjuring. Delivered with a gentle sophistication by the boyish Hollingworth, we are indeed shocked and amazed by his dexterous capabilities in the realm of card chicanery, an act that is bolstered by the amazing story behind the book.

The set represents a Victorian drawing room; there is a table dead center on which tricks are performed and an overhead camera projects the magician’s trickery on a huge upstage screen. This setting may have been perfect for an intimate room in a stately home or The Magic Castle, but the black box at the Broad’s Edye Theatre has been configured with ghastly sight lines – the audience rarely sat still as they shifted to get a better view of the proceedings; there was far more attentiveness when the tricks were projected on screen. It’s a shame that we go to the theatre and have to watch a display that looks like late night poker on TV.

The Expert at the Card Table - The Broad Stage in Santa MonicaNo doubt we are completely disarmed by one of the greatest conjurers on the planet, but because he has opted to tell stories in a laid-back, almost surreptitious manner, there were moments when the show felt far away from us, causing the audience to shuffle as much as the cards. With a running time of under seventy-five minutes, it seemed odd that the show did not always maintain the magic, which it most certainly would have in a space better suited to the show.

One of the audience members chosen to join Hollingworth on stage commented that it was an even more amazing experience being close-up. No doubt that this is a charming evening, but it proves that not everything that happens inside a theatre is necessarily theatrical. You would be advised to arrive early and nab seats in the front row.

tonyfrankel @

The Expert at the Card Table
scheduled to end on August 7
for tickets, visit or call 310-434-3200

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