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THEATER : Delving Into Magic : David Abbott has turned his lifelong fascination with mentalism into a hybrid stage piece, 'The Routine.'

March 05, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes regularly about theater for The Times.

David Abbott has more than a few tricks up his sleeve in "The Routine," a theater piece that's half magic act, half play.

"I didn't just want to get an act together and tell jokes," says the writer-actor, whose story of an ambitious cabaret mentalist makes its world premiere Saturday at Theatre West. "I wanted to do something different, something about me."

In the resulting hybrid, the first act features Abbott's character, Chester Reese, performing a magic routine. In the second act, three other characters are introduced into the story line.

"I used to want to be a magician," Abbott admits. "I got books on magic as a boy. And I was fascinated with Houdini. In the show, I talk about him, his myth, the importance of him in young people's lives, going into a magic shop for the first time. Then I got to know a few magicians, went to a couple of strange meetings--I'd go and listen to their secrets. You know how many hours it takes to learn and perfect these tricks? But I was always interested in their private lives, what motivates them."

In the character of Reese, Abbott says, "there are flashes of evil. A little Richard III, a little Machiavellian, a little deceiver. It's about where deceitfulness leads this guy down that dark road. It's also about the insecurities of performing and the power of amazing someone, their not knowing how it's done--and you start getting off on that, and it becomes your own delusion. It's a little scary, you know, an ego trip. When I can levitate something, when I can tell you what you're thinking, that's a powerful feeling."

Born in New York, Abbott moved with his family to North Hollywood at age 8, then returned to New York at 18, where he worked on a soap opera (the short-lived "For Richer, for Poorer") and played drums in a rock band called Sweaty Tools.

"We were awful, just dreadful," he recalls.

In Los Angeles since 1985, he wrote and performed a one-man show on the 19th-Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, "Sonata for Rimbaud," which had a successful 1986-87 run at Theatre / Theater in Hollywood and later toured to the Edinburgh Festival.

Abbott's father, veteran actor Philip Abbott, directed "Rimbaud" and is reprising those duties here. A founding member of Theatre West, where "The Routine" was developed in workshop, the elder Abbott describes the father-son pairing as a natural.

"I have such respect for David's original talent," he says. "I'm just trying to shape it up: 'What are you trying to say here? What do you mean by that?' But our personalities are very well-suited. And he's picked up so much, read so much--he's terribly interesting to talk to."

The younger Abbott says the mentalist act he'll perform is completely legit.

"It's an actual routine," says Abbott, who works a day job as co-manager of an antiquarian bookstore in West Hollywood. "It'll be different each night. Surprises will happen. And I'll use no stooges in the audiences."

The magic tricks, he adds, "involve numbers and words and a book. It's spontaneous, improvised, picking up on people's vibes. I do go into the audience a few times, but I don't do that traditional humiliation thing. I never embarrass anyone."

Where and When What: "The Routine." Location: Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Studio City. Hours: Opens 8 p.m. Saturday and plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 11. Price: $15. Call: (213) 851-7977.

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