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Thinking Review : A 'Thinking' Magician Plots No-Frills Head Trips

July 08, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Penn and Teller have made a career of telling their audiences the truth about magicians, but it bears repeating: The magician's world has long gone corporate, the stuff of big touring rock concerts in which David Copperfield and Doug Henning seem to need arenas and stadiums to contain their extravaganzas.

In this regard alone, magician Max Maven is a relieving throwback to a more modest era. His show, "Thinking in Person," at Way Off Broadway, includes himself, three chairs and maybe four props. Even Steve Andreno's lights, though sometimes dramatic, are deliberately spare.

As the title suggests, Maven is after something quainter and more cerebral than buzz-sawing curvaceous blondes in half.

My companion (among several members of the audience called to the stage on Saturday) noted Maven's resemblance to Orson Welles: From the all-black couture to the highly manicured beard to a voice rich in sarcasm and basso profundo menace, Maven suggests Welles' famous magician persona.

With one major exception.

Welles' act, whether it was on "The Tonight Show" or his film on magic and fraud, "F Is for Fake," played on our collective skepticism of magic while acknowledging its grand tradition. Magic, for Welles, was like cinema or, indeed, his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast: an elaborate act of illusionism, deft trickery on the senses.

Maven, on the other hand, insists to us that he really can read minds. These are not simple card tricks, he tells us during his not-so-simple-looking card tricks. Of tricksters, he says, with theatrical gravity, "I am with them, but not of them."

So, since Maven insists that this is not just an act, but genuine mentalism, he's got a lot to prove.

The truth about Maven's show comes early on, when he says that he can influence the behavior of anyone. He might add that he also can predict some behavior, as when three audience members perform musical chairs just as he anticipated. Indeed, the pattern of switched chairs, at least on this night, was not at all unusual.

The real test for Maven's, or anyone's, paranormal claims is a scientifically controlled double-blind experiment, which prevents any kind of outside manipulation.

*

On stage, though, Maven's persona commands respect while daring us to see if he can fail.

He sometimes did Saturday, especially during a complex bit involving "telling" men about their past trips abroad. He also missed on identifying two serial numbers on a concealed dollar bill, and oddly, drew the same image of a house that had been drawn by an audience member, only in reverse.

As Carl Sagan says, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and while Maven didn't provide it Saturday, he pulled off a perhaps neater trick: letting the audience unwittingly make his show a graceful and classy affair.

Maven's improvisational skill is enhanced by a charismatic animal magnetism: He makes an audience want his act to succeed, if only because we don't want to see such a Wellesian charmer slip and fall. Maven may not be reading the audience, but he knows what it wants.

* "Max Maven: Thinking in Person," Way Off Broadway, 1058 E. 1st St., Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends July 16. $15. (714) 547-8997.

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