What are magic tricks if not a warping of reality? Skilled illusionists look like they are bending the laws of physics. What they actually do, of course, is make their audience believe — in a world where people can be sawed apart and put back together, where objects fall upward and mind-reading is possible.
Kristen, the narrator and sole character of Crystal Skillman’s new play “Open,” at the Tank, executes magic tricks because she is the one who needs to believe. The miracle this lovely show pulls out is that by the end, she does — and so do we.
Decked out in a floral-pattern blazer and a top hat, a cummerbund over her T-shirt, Kristen (the wondrous Megan Hill) is a pretty funky magician. When she shuffles an invisible deck of cards, she simply mimes the action and a sound effect helps the audience fill in the blanks. When she juggles invisible balls, the slapping noise they make as they hit her palms is enough to convince us that Ms. Hill is a master of eye-hand coordination.
“Open,” unobtrusively directed by Jessi D. Hill, is not a postmodern deconstruction of David Copperfield, however, but a fragile love story that harbors tragedy under its seemingly goofy exterior.
“Secrets are the balls we keep in the air,” Kristen says. “Ours will come crashing down this evening.”
Her most ambitious trick is the one where she attempts to summon her girlfriend, Jenny — who is laying in a hospital bed after a horrific gay bashing.
An aspiring writer, Kristen tells us how she was researching a novel about young magicians when she met Jenny in the Strand bookstore’s occult section. Their first date was at Marie’s Crisis, a piano bar. They fell in love and eventually moved in together. If illusions rely on trust and the suspension of disbelief, so does romance.
Kristen recounts all this in a nonlinear manner, as if misdirecting, magician-like, our attention away from the attack on Jenny. (Some of “Open” is reminiscent of Diana Son’s 1998 play, “Stop Kiss,” which also retraced a lesbian relationship and pivoted around one of the women being attacked.) This means a dark shadow always lurks behind the comic veneer, grounding the story without burdening it with unearned pathos.
Besides its intrinsic worth, “Open” should bring more attention to a pair of downtown’s most bracing talents.
Ms. Skillman’s relative lack of exposure may be explained by her plays’ hard-to-peg, idiosyncratic range. “Open,” which strikes a delicate balance between wryness and ardor, shares little stylistic ground with “Geek!” (2013), an explosive collaboration with the Vampire Cowboys company set at an anime convention, or with the acid-etched take on reality-television “Cut,” from 2011.
The similarly versatile Ms. Hill gave a pair of sterling performances in Off Broadway productions last year: as a hilariously prancing David Lee Roth in “Eddie and Dave” and as a woman desperate to escape the menacing attentions of her male colleagues in “Do You Feel Anger?”
Her interpretation of the slightly nerdy, hesitant but determined Kristen is not as showy but just as confident. And she needs just a few brush strokes — a slight adjustment in posture, a raised eyebrow — to bring to life the assertive, quirky Jenny, the kind of woman who paints a kitchen “egg yolk yellow, nacho cheese orange, optimistic peach.”
If anything, “Open” reminds us that making an audience believe is a trick writers and actors can master, too.
Through June 22 at The Tank, Manhattan; thetanknyc.org. Running time: 1 hour.