Playing With a Full Deck

An appreciation of the artistry of Ricky Jay

Over the phone from the set of Magnolia, a new movie directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), author/historian/archivist/actor and sleight-of-hand-man extraordinaire Ricky Jay is thrown only momentarily when asked if St. Louis figures in the rich history of the conjuring arts that he's spent so many years researching.

"You want some St. Louis lore, huh? Yes! There was a very important illusion show on the Exposition fairgrounds created by a man called Roltair. It was called 'Creation,' a kind of ride through the creation of the world. He was actually a very successful creator of illusions. I hadn't thought of that before, but yeah, that happened in St. Louis."

More historical lore: One day now lost in the 1970s, I saw Ricky Jay open a show for headliners Cheech & Chong. I don't recall many specifics; post-'60s wisdom has it that to remember too much about any of that time is akin to admitting you weren't really there. But I do remember that Jay had a way with playing cards: He threw them. With a vengeance.

End of flashback. These are the waning days of the '90s, and Ricky Jay has arrived, unforgettably. The one-man show that he's bringing to Washington University's Edison Theatre for a 10-day run, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants (a deck of the aforementioned cards), usually sells out wherever it's playing before opening night. He's directed by his friend, writer David Mamet. And the stoned humor of "Dave? Dave's not here" is no longer part of the evening's entertainment. Now, audiences are much more concerned with how the four queens got from here to there.

Jay's show is, literally, a magical night in the theater. One of the hottest tickets in New York when it opened off-Broadway in 1994, 52 Assistants received rave reviews -- the kind of notices it continues to garner wherever Jay's performed it over the last five years.

"I really don't know what accounts for the popularity," he told me. "Very little of the audience comes from the magic community. I imagine some people are attracted by Mamet's name as director. And some people are fans from other things that I do -- either the writing or the acting -- so they're curious. Whoever they are, I want them to leave having had a good experience." The show's scale and intimacy are throwbacks. There are never more than 150 audience members, and the single set -- a kind of fin-de-siecle gaming room -- provides all the backdrop that Jay needs. When the show debuted in New York, Jay told Time magazine: "The trend toward overelaborate theater led me to this. The kind of thing where people think more about helicopters than actors. The idea of walking onstage with a deck of cards and entertaining for an evening seemed a lovely way to go against the trend."

Since then, it's remained invigorating: "Fortunately, I don't go from city to city. I do other things in between, whether it's writing or film or other kinds of performances: lectures at colleges, setting up gallery shows. And because of the audience participation and the nature of the show, it's different every night."

Jay's show also bucks the trend of the Vegas-size glitter-magic perpetrated by the likes of Siegfried & Roy and the razzle-dazzle hashed and rehashed in the current cavalcade of nonspecial network "specials." What Jay wrote about Max Malini, a lesser-remembered contemporary of Houdini and Thurston, applies as well to Jay himself: "Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be -- not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles."

Jay's love of language, too, is everywhere in this show. His running commentary-as-oral-history locates individual effects in the context of conjuring history. His script ranges from the streetwise patter of the three-card-monte dealer to the flamboyant stylings of a W.C. Fields or a Shakespeare. Jay is a superbly theatrical performer, and his fervent belief is constantly on display: Conjuring is a living art, not a parlor game. Both his words and his actions speak loudly, clearly to that notion.

And this artist's show is, in no small part, an homage to the tradition in which Jay so splendidly takes his place. Nineteenth-century illusionist Johann Hofzinser (whose "Everywhere and Nowhere" effect is dizzyingly re-created by Jay) called playing cards "the poetry of magic." If so, then Jay is its Walt Whitman; he contains multitudes. Dai Vernon, renowned 20th-century sleight-of-hand exponent and one of Jay's personal mentors, said that cards are "like living, breathing human beings and should be treated accordingly." Jay is more than up to that kind of relationship.

He's pleased to see up-and-coming performers with a sense of the tradition: "There are plenty who don't have a clue. But there really are some who are terrific, who have a sense of history and get it, who are also original themselves. Which is encouraging, particularly in view of the fact of that silliness you so accurately described earlier -- what's trying to pass as magic." When he's not performing onstage, Jay stays plenty busy. In the past 12 years he's appeared in several films, including Boogie Nights, Tomorrow Never Dies and the Mamet-directed House of Games (my all-time favorite confidence-game movie), Things Change, Homicide and The Spanish Prisoner. As founder of Deceptive Practices, a consulting company offering "arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis," he's provided his special brand of deception expertise to other films and to the Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Perestroika.

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