Social media has exposed the alarming manipulability of our minds. Psychological hacking turns out to be so easy that all it takes is an algorithm to get us to click, watch, buy and believe.
Mentalist and theater artist Vinny DePonto, a bearded, soft-spoken man with gentle eyes, doesn’t want to bamboozle 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 confesses that he wouldn’t be able to read our minds after the show — that his knowledge depends on the way the conditions have been carefully arranged.
These disclaimers out of the way, DePonto then goes on to read the thoughts of perfect strangers. He somehow knows in advance the president a random audience member will name — perhaps because he managed to subtly communicate a suggestion when asking about this theatergoer’s favorite flavor of ice cream. Or perhaps by way of some other perceptual sleight of hand.
Participation is built into the show from the start. Before DePonto walks out, a telephone on the set starts ringing, prompting a bold audience member to answer it. This prelude issues a warning: Those in attendance will not be permitted to sit back in the safety of anonymity.
I was intermittently panicked throughout the 80-minute production (directed by Andrew Neisler) by the fear that I might be called to the stage. As a critic holding a small notebook, I had some protection. What artist would want to tap into the flow of my caviling thoughts in the middle of a performance? I didn’t want the public scrutiny, but part of me was curious whether he could crack the fortress of my brain.
No doubt I would have been easy prey for his Pavlovian clutches. His mind-reading went as smoothly as clockwork. He knew that one woman was thinking about her fear of ants and another was recalling the happiness of her youth playing outside with her sister.
Astoundingly, he knew that one man would be thinking about a romantic sandstorm he experienced at Burning Man. DePonto had a photo of such a scene ready to be unveiled — preparation that spoiled the fun for me. Mystery is more compelling when 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 safe deposit boxes that contain not cash or jewelry but only memories, is as artfully arranged as the ghostly lighting by Pablo Santiago. But the presentation gets gimmicky with special effects befitting Saturday morning children’s television.
DePonto traces his obsession with the way our minds work to the time when his beloved grandfather began losing his memory. This narrative fills the interstices of the show. “Mindplay” might be stronger if DePonto had expanded this personal history and connected it more directly to the mental science that clearly fascinates him.
The slicker the theatrical maneuvers, the more the show begins to feel like a hoax. DePonto, whose stage presence exudes compassionate sincerity, is his own most magical asset. His instinct to root “Mindplay” in reality is one he should have more faithfully honored. The truth of our minds is more wondrous than any stage illusion.
Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Dec. 18
Tickets: $39.00 to $129.00 (subject to change)
Contact: (310) 208-2028 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
This story originally appeared on LATimes