Unsettlingly funny sketch and improv shows are the Annoyance Theatre’s calling card. Same goes for founders Mick Napier and Jennifer Estlin’s hobby as mentalists: They perform feats of mental acuity—such as guessing which numbers people are thinking of—but they’ll be the first to debunk such talents as nothing more than parlor tricks.
It’s easy to buy into the illusion: Estlin and Napier have been polishing their act for years. Estlin was living in New York in 1997, and the two caught mentalist Mark Salem on stage. They were hooked and began scouring magic shops for books on the subject. They’ve drilled tricks, often for hours each day, because in the world of mentalism, it’s truly use it or lose it; practitioners have to stay sharp. “For two-person acts, they suggest you be married, because you spend so much time together,” Napier says. “Luckily, we’ve been dating for 14 and a half years.”
Last August, their act made it to the stage. Before that, Napier says fear kept the two at bay—they know comedy, not this new performance terrain. The catalyst was finding a director in Adam Rubin, an Annoyance performer who’s also a magician. Their show, Mind Boggling Mentalism, ran for three weeks and encountered only one hiccup: During the psychokinetic touch, when a blindfolded couple from the audience “senses” shoulder taps on one another, the audience volunteers lied about feeling anything. The crowd was pissed.
Just don’t ask how the tricks are done. “When he’s asked, Adam [Rubin] says it’s better if you don’t know,” Estlin explains. “It’s like ruining Christmas.”