Having its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, “Mindplay” is a play about minds that also plays with minds. Created by mentalist Vinny DePonto and co-written by dramatist Josh Koenigsberg, the 80-minute show features DePonto sharing his perceptions of the mind while performing mind-reading tricks on audience members. The interactive show thus weaves DePonto’s memories and feelings with those of the audience, like magical group therapy.
Behind DePonto’s earnest endeavor to help us not feel alone with our thoughts is a theatrical team helping make the narrative compelling, led by director Andrew Neisler. Set design (by Sibyl Wickersheimer) features a simple desk with an old-school telephone and slide projector in front of a beige curtain with “what’s on your mind?” scrawled across it.
The curtains eventually part to reveal DePonto’s “brain”—row upon row of numbered drawers containing memories recorded on innumerable audio cassettes, plus other objects.
Stage crew help manage slips of paper audience members are asked to write on before the show begins, deposited in a fishbowl from which DePonto draws names. And they provide balloons for the audience to bounce in a version of musical chairs, make phone calls for audience members to answer and write notes for them to read.
Through these orchestrations, several audience members end up in front with DePonto, engaging in what he calls “psychological tricks” involving their deepest memories or feelings aided by small pendulum, teapot and cups, closed eyes and various hand gestures and placements.
Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that audience members’ thoughts are telepathically shared, burned or “read” by DePonto, who sends participants back to their seats with the wish that they now feel less alone or know they will be remembered.
Between tricks, DePonto muses on the intricacies of the mind, an interest that began in childhood fears related to his grandparents losing their memories. As he speaks, DePonto shows slide-projector images of himself as a toddler with his grandparents, his childhood birthday party, his childhood toy collection and himself as 14-year-old magician Vanishing Vinny.
We learn that preserving memory became DePonto’s obsession, and we witness a demonstration of a “mind palace” memorization technique he mastered involving a large tome of Shakespeare. He also tells us that our thoughts dictate our reality, as demonstrated by the pendulum seemingly moving just by suggestion.
Though the mind and thoughts are the focus of DePonto’s intricate narrative, he relies on emotions when dealing with the audience, particularly fears, regrets and ruminative fixations. DePonto shares a story of ending up in a cult-like seminar in Big Sur, learning that rumination is what cows do with their four stomachs.
In this way, the show situates mental tricks within DePonto’s own therapeutic journey and seems to insist the audience participate in self-healing, whether or not they feel they need it. The premise seems to be that the fearful or regretful thing weighing on your mind (which audience members are asked to write down) warrants such intervention.
But DePonto also acknowledges the limits of his ability to master his mind—evinced on stage by bunches of tangled cassette ribbon threatening to engulf his “brain”—though he spirits himself out that messy situation like a true magician.
Lighting (Pablo Santiago) and sound (Everett Elton Bradman) effectively add atmosphere and distract when necessary. However, though the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater is fairly intimate, DePonto’s mic could be turned up a notch to make his voice more easily heard. And the back rows could be better lit; DePonto couldn’t see the audience members sitting there whose names he had chosen.
Ultimately, “Mindplay” is successful as a self-contained world—the mind of a magician—into which we are invited to play. But like any trickery, there is a degree of manipulation involved to sustain the illusion that sometimes feels unsettling, especially since it involves sharing our feelings with strangers (kind of like on the internet).
But it also calls attention to the way theatre itself is a deception into which we willingly enter. The show may make you wonder, though—how much of DePonto’s narrative in “Mindplay” is “real” in the service of therapeutic communion? And how much is artifice in the spirit of theatrical entertainment? Those are questions you might ponder while enjoying the show’s sweet ending (sorry, no spoilers).
“Mindplay” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through Dec. 18, with shows Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $129 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Run time is 80 minutes without intermission. Masks optional except specified performances.