(Paul puts his rabbit Jabber into a small, intricately-designed box with long spikes projecting from the top to the base. It holds a carrot in the middle.)
PAUL: The first time I tried something like this –
(He closes the box.)
I was seven-and-a-half years old. I’d just seen some Houdini shove a beautiful girl into a box that he subsequently riddled with swords. I was terrified. But when the trick was over, out she came, all teeth and legs. So the next day I got my sister’s hamster, stuck it in a shoe box, riddled the box with steak-knives, and guess what? No miracle.
(By this time he has, with some resistance, shoved the spikes down to meet the bottom of the box.)
But you know, I get a thrill every time a trick fails. I kinda like it. Let’s me know I’m…
(He opens the box.)
(Silence. He stands very still, looking into the box. Blood leaks onto the table.)
This is not my day.
A magician is accused of murder by a persistent detective. Is he as innocent as he protests he is? Is the detective really a detective? What happens when professional tricksters try to out-trick the other?
Indeed it was not my day.
I first wrote Sleight of Hand when I was writing Agnes; it was the relief pitcher I turned to when my arm got tired of the emotional chaos of that nunnery. Over the years it had its fierce admirers – at least two producers wanted to option it before it landed with the right one. (She was later pilloried by one member of the press who asked to observe rehearsals where she, the reporter, acted as sweet and as supportive as she could be, then later stabbed our valiant producer, already bleeding, like a sadistic butcher.) But the problem that I didn’t see – and no one else saw before it was too late – is that the play had a very strong Act One and a very wrong Act Two. (The second act hinged on an impossible stage trick that no one could pull off – a trick that, had it worked, would have left the audience gasping but still longing for a satisfying ending.) The failure that followed I blame squarely on myself, and it was a rough one. I lost a friend and a play over this production. To this day there is no extant script – the one that finally opened on Broadway was twisted by a last-ditch effort to provide an ending that worked. (There is, however, a video recording of this production at the Lincoln Center Library – which will give testimony to the brilliant work done by Harry Groener and Jeff de Munn.) The logo, I must say, was magnificent. But the agony that I went through during this time turned me away from New York for many years.
I think I know now what that second act should be.