One of my favorite bits of P.T. Barnum lore is a trick that the showman and businessman played on customers of his famed Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan.
Long before Barnum began his circus career in 1871, he operated a five-story building that was part zoo, museum and freak show. One day, noticing that people were idling too long inside the museum, Barnum put up elaborate signs reading “This Way to the Egress.” Believing it was an attraction, customers left the museum through exit doors, which would lock behind them. To reenter, admission was another quarter.
In a country that so values drive and self-determination, there’s something uniquely American about making a buck from nothing but bluster. Confidence men and those of their ilk have long fascinated us, from Barnum through Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland and even our current president.
But it’s a celebration of all things Barnum that has descended upon the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design for a weeklong run. Presented by magician and storyteller David London as a one-man show, “Humbug: The Great P.T. Barnum Séance” is billed as an experience that will “bring Barnum and his cast of characters back to life!”
This “Humbug” is long on visual appeal, but short on just about everything else. Entering a back room of the Tudor/Jacobean revivalist Branch Museum, audience members are greeted with plenty to draw the eye, including posters and artifacts of Barnum’s career and a custom-built séance table with a clover-shaped cutout in the center.
During the first hour of the show, London lectures about Barnum’s life with the aid of some of these artifacts. We learn about his beginnings as a newspaper publisher, his early shows and the founding of the museum and circus. Affecting some sort of quasi-English accent, London is tedious in his presentation, coming off as little more than a glorified Wikipedia entry.
Things improve little during the second half of the show. Around the séance table, London performs a few cheap magic tricks while attempting to conjure spirits from beyond. Without giving the ending away, this is abandoned before long. With little in the way of special effects and London’s wooden, faux-stammering presentation, the second half of the show is nearly as tedious as the first.
With seats at the séance table costing $40, Barnum would likely have been appalled by this show. While Barnum had no problem lying or exaggerating to his customers, he was only ok with it as long as you’d gotten your money’s worth. Sure, he might trick you into leaving his museum before you were ready, but by then you’d likely seen the first hippopotamus of your life, a bearded woman and all other manner of curiosities.
For a work that enlists the name of the world’s purported greatest showman in its title, this is a show severely lacking in showmanship.
“Humbug: The Great P.T. Barnum Séance,” runs through March 16 at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, 2501 Monument Ave. firehousetheatre.org.