Is the ability to connect with the dead a valid phenomenon, or is it, in the words of renowned escape artist Harry Houdini, merely “flimflam,” meaning, what performers do to make lies seem like truth? That question propels the play “Flim Flam,” which dramatizes the investigation into psychic mediums conducted on behalf of the Scientific American committee by a skeptical Houdini (Rick D. Wasserman), together with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter Van Norden), creator of the detective Sherlock Holmes and an ardent believer in spiritualists. The production runs through Aug. 3 at the Malibu Playhouse.
The action is set in 1922, when spiritualism and séances were all the rage in America. Playwright Gene Franklin Smith said he personally has had some recent, odd experiences with the supernatural.
“For a period, I went to several psychic mediums, and a lot of them were, as Houdini says in the play, flimflam, but one particular medium,” Smith recalled, “described my grandmother in detail and said that she was guarding over me, that she wasn’t worried about my mother at all but was more worried about me. So that was very startling, because I hadn’t given her any clues.
“Five years later — I was living in Manhattan at the time — I was walking down the street, and I felt [my grandmother’s] presence leave me. That kind of emptiness, that vacuum that was created, inspired me to write the play, because I feel that both Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle felt that vacuum over the loss of their mothers.”
In fact, actor Wasserman said his Houdini is primarily driven by the need to reconnect with his mother. Wasserman said he learned that the escape artist, the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, always referred to her as “my sainted mother.”
“He was also charged by his father, on his father’s deathbed, to take care of her, to make sure that she never wants,” the actor added.
Houdini’s father was a rabbi, but Wasserman, who is Jewish, doesn’t find Houdini’s ethnicity to be a major focus of the play. More relevant for the actor is Houdini’s belief that it might be possible to channel the dead, and his constant disappointment after attending hundreds of séances. He and his mother had a code word, “forgive,” to be uttered from beyond the grave if they made contact after death. He never revealed the code to anyone, not even to his wife, Bess (Melissa Kite).
Early in the play, as Houdini has difficulty freeing himself from restraints during his act, he calls out to his mother.
“He whispers, ‘Mama, bist du hier?’ meaning ‘Mama, are you here?’ Smith said. “He would apparently do this when there were any kinds of death-defying stunts that he would perform, after she had died, of course, to get some sort of comfort.”
The playwright asserted that while he took some dramatic license, at least 80 percent of what he presents is true. For example, a crucial element of the story involves Sir Arthur’s wife, Lady Jean (Gigi Bermingham), who is at first disdainful of mediums and séances, but who morphs into a medium herself and, during what is known among Houdini aficionados as the infamous Atlantic City séance, purports to channel Houdini’s mother through automatic writing.
“It’s a very famous episode in both Houdini’s and Conan Doyle’s lives,” Smith said. “It forever altered their relationship in a negative way.” According to the playwright, Houdini was incensed that Lady Jean used his mother to promote herself as a medium.
Smith’s script has Bess ridicule Lady Jean for speaking in English while claiming to channel Houdini’s mother, who couldn’t speak a word of English, and for making the sign of the cross on the pages of her “automatic writing,” which, as a Jew, Houdini’s mother would never do. In reality, the playwright said, Bess was not in the room during that séance; she had been asked to leave because some believed her negative influence would affect the spirit that was entering the room. “She did not stay for it,” Smith said, “but, for dramatic purposes, because she’s sort of the voice of reason throughout the play, I kept her in the room during that particular séance.”
Although the play does not take definite sides in the controversy over connection with an afterlife, Smith said he would like audiences to examine their own sense of the spiritual.
“I think there are a lot of people who believe all of this is garbage. Look at all the psychic mediums that you can still see today, and so many of them do have people working for them to create the effects that they do, but I just feel that there is a chance that we can reach out.
“I feel it happen in my life. It’s like giving hope to people that it just doesn’t end with death. There’s more to it.”
“Flim Flam,” Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, June 20-Aug. 3. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Reservations: (323) 960-7711 or https://www.plays411.net