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‘Flim Flam’ brings supernatural oddity to the stage

Playing Harry Houdini, Rick Wasserman (right) is tied up by Melissa Kite, who is playing Houdini’s wife, Bess. Photo submitted
Playing Harry Houdini, Rick Wasserman (right) is depicted in a “fairy photograph” as holding his wife Bess, played by Melissa Kite.
Chris Bashaw, Assistant Editor
3:25 pm PDT June 16, 2014

It’s the summer of the 1922: Harry Houdini’s mind and body are battered from his harrowingly death-defying escape routines, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is growing weary of writing Sherlock Holmes.

Both men are looking for something new.

After exchanging letters, the famed escape artist and mystery novel legend team-up to investigate self-proclaimed psychic mediums for the Scientific American committee.

The friendship between the duo, however, is challenged when Conan Doyle begins to fancy a beautiful psychic and believes her to be authentic. Houdini is determined to prove she is a phony, until she appears to make contact with his beloved dead mother, and he must confront his own beliefs about the afterlife.

It’s the story of Houdini and Conan Doyle that playwright Gene Franklin Smith – artistic director at the Malibu Playhouse – said he thinks people may find incredulous, even if everything is based upon factual accounts. 

Smith’s play, “Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter” will open at the Malibu Playhouse at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 20.

“I really want people to see Houdini and Conan Doyle as they haven’t been depicted before,” Smith said. “Whenever they’re depicted on screen, it’s fiction; but these are real events and everyone will be surprised with what happens with the two of them. When people see this, it might be hard for them to believe it.”

What’s more, Smith said the lines defining reality are further blurred with the help of Jim Bentley from the Magic Castle, who for four months taught the play’s actors how to perform numerous illusions as well as provide historical accuracy to Houdini’s character.

Smith’s play was a five-year endeavor, many drafts in the making, that began in 2009 after he read biographer William Kalush’s 2007 release, “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero.”

The passages in the Houdini biography that include his association and exploits with Conan Doyle, along with the strain it put on the men’s relationships with each other and their wives – not to mention it all occurring within the context of paranormal investigation – stood out enough Smith to inspire him to put the story on a stage.

“It really hit me,” he said. “I’ve had lots of supernatural things happen in my life, so it just really appealed to me that there was a possibility that one [medium] wasn’t a fraud . . . Everyone’s had someone who’s died and who they wished they could communicate with, that’s also why it appealed to me so much. I think that there is hope that there could be life after death: A lot of people these days have spiritual crises or are obsessive about religion, but no one really knows what happens with the afterlife.”

Smith said Houdini and Conan Doyle were both desperately missing their dead mothers, which is what ultimately brought them together despite their opposing views. 

“They were both trying to move past their grief,” Smith said. 

Smith added that he hopes that viewers will find a bit of an unexpected twist at the end of his play that he said is indicative of his own feelings regarding the afterlife.

Smith’s play will run at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as 3 p.m. on Sundays at the Malibu Playhouse through Aug. 3.