2006_09_arts_esoterica.jpgDon’t be alarmed by the synthesized arena-rock Muzak piped into the house before “Esoterica”, Eric Walton’s solo show of magic and mentalism. “Arrested Development” fans may get the feeling they’re in for a long night of cheesy, Gobian gimmickry, but any similarities begin and end with the tacky taste in music - a trait mysteriously shared by virtually all magicians.

The main appeal of “Esoterica” is Walton’s extraordinary sleight-of-hand and card trickery, which grow dramatically more impressive as the evening unfolds. Most of the tricks - though he’d surely loathe the term - are framed in the context of various philosophical concepts and historical figures. There are digressions into the history of different con games, a discourse on free will versus determinism, and mention of such notables as Manilius (the first century Roman poet and astrologer), Carl Jung, Winston Churchill, memory expert/chess master George Koltanowski and, of course, Houdini.

The show is billed as “a night of intellectual swashbuckling” and with his top-shelf vocabulary and gentlemanly poise, Walton quickly establishes himself as the sharpest knife in the drawer. Thankfully, he has a comic’s instinct for taking the air out his own pomposity with quips like “Fortune favors the bold; fortune also favors the pedantic and verbose”.

Indeed, what sets “Esoterica” apart from any other magic show you might see at an extravagant birthday party is “Eric Walton” the character, a pedantic snob who wouldn’t be caught dead deploying a two syllable word when one with eight will do. While mesmerizing you with his illusions, Walton simultaneously milks laughs by stepping outside of this pretentious character to let everyone know he’s in on the joke.

This knack for self-parody peaks brilliantly when, midway through the show, his thankless assistant (Reyna De Courcy) drags a heavy plush chair onstage. Walton, draped in a dark velvet blazer, takes a seat as the lights dim, signaling an interminable soliloquy. Swirling a snifter of brandy, he begins: “People often ask how I got interested in the art of conjuring.” After a pause to reflect, he concludes, “And I just ignore them.” He abruptly stands, the chair and drink disappear, and the audience roars with appreciative laughter at having dodged the bullet of infatuated autobiography.

In this way Walton thrillingly walks two tightropes simultaneously: one stretched over the abyss of failed illusions, the other spanning the deadly chasm of boring didacticism.

The performance I saw actually began with a (partially) failed card trick: three audience members were asked to select a card, replace it in the deck, and then mentally visualize the card. Walton wrongly guessed one of the participant’s cards but insisted that “two out of three” wasn’t bad. That he proceed to nail every increasingly difficult trick throughout the show makes me suspect the “gaff” was a deliberate bit of stagecraft designed to bring an added tension to the proceedings.

Although the first act is filled with some marvelous slight-of-hand, the dazzle of card tricks can grow commonplace when seen in rapid succession. I returned from intermission hoping Walton had saved the most impressive rabbits in his hat for act two. Rest assured that if you find the first act at all engaging, Walton’s wizardry in the second half will leave you speechless and perhaps just a little freaked out.

For the climactic finish, Walton executes three simultaneous feats of mental derring-do. He performs the “Knight’s Tour”, a legendary challenge in which the player must move the knight around a chess board so that it lands on every square - but only once. The starting square is chosen by the audience, and Walton calls out the moves (with his back to the board) while simultaneously filling out a complicated mathematical breakdown of a random number. To keep busy, he also recites trivia about various American states selected by the audience.

Like much of “Esoterica”, this is nothing new. Ricky Jay concluded his hit Broadway magic show with a performance of the “Knight’s Tour” while simultaneously calculating assorted cube roots of big numbers and declaiming Shakespeare. In Jay’s compendium of eccentric entertainers, “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women”, we learn that the stunt is a direct descendant of mentalist Harry Kahne’s vaudeville act that wowed audiences at the turn of the twentieth century.

This history in no way diminishes the thrill of seeing these feats performed with your own eyes. “Esoterica” is one of those breezy, crowd-pleasing shows ideal for out-of-town family who want to catch an attraction available only in New York, at least for the time being.