"Sleight of Hand," John Pielmeier's thriller that opened at the Cort last night, offers the familiar mystery-magic conventions, yet manages to put its finger on some durable questions. What is illusion and what is real? Are both interchangable?
They can be if we want to believe, and that is the secret of persuasion. In "Hand," it is a magician who creates illusions that seem real. In life, it could be a politician, a churchman, a financier.
Pielmeier offers the sad truth that those who beget an illusion, however unwittingly, can become its victim. His three characters are a magician (Harry Groener), his assistant (Priscilla Shanks) and the assistant's confederate (Jeffrey DeMunn). The assistant, sick of being the magician's stooge, wants to turn the tables and, for once, play a trick on her boss that he can't see through. Her attempt introduces the evening's central question: Who is fooling whom and how much does any one of them realize it?
All this is played out with generous helpings of card tricks and disappearing acts, gunplay and enough plot twists to satisfy Col. Oliver North.
"Hand" is, on surface, an old-fashioned thriller with good performances and wonderfully sinister sets and lighting by Loren Sherman and Richard Nelson. It offers more than just trickery, but its effectiveness lies chiefly in the hand being quicker than the brain.
The new play "Sleight of Hand," which opened at the Cort Theater last night, is certainly slight, but it is also, almost unexpectedly, handy - for anyone demanding an undemanding evening of slick tricks, unsurprising surprises, and chill thrills.
This conjuring extravaganza of a thriller seems to have been virtually more constructed than written by John Pielmeier, and the story has as much literary interest as a card trick.
Also - beware - the ending, as is the way of both unravelled thrillers and explained conjuring tricks, tends to flop down with the deflating air of an anti-climax reaching its peak.
Still, face it, flat endings are the price you pay for ongoing suspense, and even such redoubtable Broadway thriller-chillers as "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap" really had no more fizz at the end than old champagne.
And Mr. Pielmeier is ingenious enough in his fashion. His hero is Paul, a magician, beloved of the East Side children's party set, with ambitions toward grander illusions.
Sharon, Paul's girlfriend of the moment, whom he teases unmercifully with his tricks and, perhaps - who can tell? - a glint of sadistic malice, is a dancer rehearsing an Edgar Allen Poe musical called - what else? - "Poe on Toe."
The time is Christmas Eve, but Sharon has gone off to rehearse, leaving Paul in his loft with no one but his professional rabbit, Jabber.
But then Paul has a visitor: a man with a gun and a badge, who says his name is Dancer, does not appear to be one of Santa Claus's reindeer, and claims to be a detective from this city's Police Department.
Be that as it may; Dancer drinks on duty. So it's just as well that Paul has mastered - among any number of spellbinding tricks - a little one that miraculously pulls a White Horse out of a balloon; the White Horse in question being of course a bottle of Scotch, which they both drink.
Now the plot muddies, and there are enough twists to make a corkscrew go straight. I will just let one cat out of the bag for the sake of animal lovers: don't worry too much about the rabbit!
When Mr. Pielmeier, the author of "Agnes of God," started out, it seems likely that he had a more serious intent than that which eventually jumped out of the hat onto the stage.
At one point Paul warns audiences that they are "too willing to believe in the benevolence of magicians; we not only want to mystify, we want to frighten."
One can see that a Gothic tale might have emerged from a sadistically inclined magician; and that it has not done so here is, ironically enough, doubtless owing in part to the efficacy of the magic tricks.
You cannot take anything too seriously when you know that it is illusion. Thus what we have here is a vastly superior Doug Henning show rather than a macabre spook-out.
And mention of Doug Henning instantly brings me to the real hero of the evening, the magic consultant Charles Reynolds - is there a Tony Award for magic? - who, with the special effects team of Jauchem and Meech, gives the show its illusory backbone.
Reynolds has in the past been consultant for such sorcerers as Henning and Harry Blackstone, and here he proves that anyone can be a magician, even the affable and, clearly, nimble-fingered actor Harry Groener.
Now Mr. Groener has never been a stage magician before, but - presumably an unusually apt pupil, although interestedly I note he has an understudy! - he can appear as miraculous a wizard as Henning himself. And a good deal more personable and convincing.
The script is continually promising to teach us magic, and to show how the tricks are done. Mercifully it reneges on the promise; but what it does show (almost as revealingly) is that anyone, perhaps only needing some flair for prestidigitation, can be a magician.
While Reynolds could doubtless make a mini-Houdini out of thin air, with the dapper, engaging Groener he has had a major triumph, and Groener, if he wants it, has stumbled dexterously into a new career.
Groener's co-star, Jeffrey DeMunn as Dancer, has not here found the vital role his vibrant talents need to confirm him as one of our most interesting actors. Still he registers anxiety and frustration rewardingly, and, under the direction and swordsmanship tutelage of the admirable B.H. Barry, fights a good fight with Groener.
As the woman in the picture, Priscilla Shanks has the somewhat passive role of a lady being cut in half, but she endures everything charmingly.
Walton Jones has directed the actors between the tricks resourcefully, and the scenery by Loren Sherman (particularly his second-act rehearsal set, with a beautiful Pit and Pendulum artifact) is most effective, as is the lighting by Richard Nelson.
Despite the absence of disguise - sometimes regarded as essential to the genre - I thought this was one of the best thrillers since "Sleuth" and last season's unlucky "Corpse."
Act II of ''Sleight of Hand,'' the new John Pielmeier play at the Cort, is set in ''an empty Broadway theater.'' No one can accuse Act I of failing to do its part to make that description come literally true. Mr. Pielmeier's would-be thriller opens with 50 minutes of rambling, numbing exposition - much of it accompanied, if not enlivened, by the sort of canned magic tricks so memorably mocked by the comic illusionists Penn and Teller. Then comes what the Playbill conservatively describes as a ''20-minute intermission,'' followed by a denouement that runs slightly longer than the intermission but proves not nearly so action packed.
The playwright, whose previous Broadway potboilers have traded in theology (''Agnes of God'') and Vietnam (''The Boys of Winter''), does aim refreshingly lower here. ''Sleight of Hand'' wants only to be a witty, shriek-inducing entertainment in the honorable tradition of ''Deathtrap,'' ''Sleuth'' and ''Wait Until Dark.'' Given that Mr. Pielmeier's other work has been marked by a brute instinct for melodrama and a sadistic relish for the mutilation of human flesh, one might expect him to have at last arrived at his most natural calling. But ''Sleight of Hand'' is so frail that the ''e'' in the first word of its title is as superfluous as the exclamation point tacked on to last season's ''Corpse!''
True to his models, the author supplies a love triangle with an ambiguous hypotenuse, a gun loaded with blanks and rivulets of stage blood. What he has left out is a remotely credible, let alone coherent, plot. ''Sleight of Hand'' stops fooling us within its first few minutes - when one man easily convinces another that he is a New York City police detective in spite of following investigative procedures that might be considered unconstitutional in the Soviet Union. Eventually Mr. Pielmeier digs himself into such a deep narrative pit that the characters can do little more than run around like 5-year-olds trying to scare one another by shouting ''boo.'' In what should be the climactic final scene, the actors align themselves in a row facing the audience and explicate the story's tedious twists as if they were conducting a seminar on the tax code.
The magic tricks and stunts - which tend to be repeated at least once, lest anyone doze during their initial presentation - are mostly (and capably) performed by Harry Groener, an amiable song-and-dance man who is ludicrously ill-equipped to play the role of a vicious, alcoholic magician. Jeffrey DeMunn is all too typecast as his nemesis, a mysterious intruder who may or may not be a theater director: This is exactly the same ranting portrayal of a backstage tyrant that Mr. DeMunn previously contributed to last fall's ''Hands of Its Enemy'' and the 1984 revival of ''The Country Girl.'' The other member of the company is an understandably lost Priscilla Shanks, as a love interest characterized with somewhat less verve than Mr. Groener's pet rabbit.
The best to be said of the production, under the direction of Walton Jones, is that Loren Sherman's expert scenery can be more amusingly animated than its inhabitants. Among the evening's oddities is a ''title song'' that introduces and concludes Act II with lyrics such as ''Now you see it, now you don't/Is this a case of sleight of hand?'' The singer is Carly Simon, who recorded the ditty on tape and, shrewd illusionist that she is, promptly disappeared.