Review: Mentalist Vinny DePonto’s mind game at Geffen

Review: Mentalist Vinny DePonto’s mind game at Geffen

Social media has revealed the alarming manipulability of our minds. Psychological hacking turns out to be so simple that all it takes is an algorithm to make us click, look, buy and believe.

Mentalist and theater artist Vinny DePonto, a bearded, soft-spoken man with gentle eyes, does not want to fool us with hocus pocus. Instead, he sets out to dazzle us by revealing our own predictability.

At the start of his new show, “Mindplay,” which opened Thursday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, he tells us there’s a psychological trick behind the feats he’s about to perform. He assures us that there are no plants in the audience, but admits that he would not be able to read our minds after the performance – that his knowledge depends on the way the conditions are carefully arranged.

Those disclaimers out of the way, DePonto proceeds to read the minds of perfect strangers. Somehow he knows in advance the president a random audience member will name — perhaps because he managed to subtly communicate a suggestion when he asked this theatergoer’s favorite flavor of ice cream. Or perhaps by means of another perceptual sleight of hand.

Participation is built into the performance from the start. Before DePonto walks out, a phone on set starts ringing, prompting a daring audience member to answer. This prelude provides a warning: those present will not be allowed to sit back in the security of anonymity.

I panicked at times throughout the 80-minute production (directed by Andrew Neisler) for fear that I might be called to the stage. As a critic who kept a small notebook, I had some protection. What artist would want to take part in the flow of my confusing thoughts in the middle of a performance? I didn’t want public scrutiny, but part of me was curious if he could crack the fortress of my brain.

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No doubt I would have been easy prey for his Pavlovian clutches. His mind reading went smoothly like clockwork. He knew one woman was thinking about her fear of ants, and another was remembering the joy of her youth playing outside with her sister.

A man in dark lighting gestures near a table

Vinny DePonto in a carefully staged moment of “Mindplay” at Geffen.

(Jeff Lorch)

Amazingly, he knew a man would think of a romantic sandstorm he experienced at Burning Man. DePonto had a picture of such a scene ready to be unveiled – preparation that ruined the fun for me. Mystery is more compelling when it is not over-furnished.

“Mindplay,” which DePonto co-wrote with Josh Koenigsberg, relies too much on scenic frills. The set by Sibyl Wickersheimer, which features a wall of safes containing not cash or jewelry but only memories, is as artfully arranged as the ghostly lighting by Pablo Santiago. But the presentation becomes gimmicky with special effects suitable for children’s television on a Saturday morning.

DePonto traces his obsession with how our minds work to the time when his beloved grandfather began to lose his memory. This narrative fills in the gaps in the show. “Mindplay” might be stronger if DePonto had expanded on this personal story and connected it more directly to the mental science that clearly fascinates him.

The smoother the theatrical maneuvers, the more the performance begins to feel like a hoax. DePonto, whose stage presence radiates compassionate sincerity, is his own most magical asset. His instinct to ground “Mindplay” in reality is one he should have honored more faithfully. The truth in our minds is stranger than any stage illusion.

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‘Memory Game’

Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, LA
When: 19.30 Tuesdays to Fridays, 13.00 and 19.00 Saturdays and Sundays. Ends December 18
Tickets: $39.00 to $129.00 (subject to change)
Consult: (310) 208-2028 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Operating hours: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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