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MAGIC : It's Just Magic. Really. : Ricky Jay--conjurer, historian, collector of exotica and David Mamet's personal Merlin--is riding high with a sold-out Off Broadway show and new stature in the world of entertainment

February 06, 1994|LAURIE WERNER | Laurie Werner is a free-lance writer based in New York

NEW YORK — When you meet Ricky Jay, it's impossible not to look first at his hands. As an artist of sleight-of-hand illusions, one of the greatest performing today, he should have special hands, perhaps extra large, extra long, with an extra finger. Something.

Instead, he has hands that are surprisingly small for his bearlike size. They are also remarkably soft. Better, perhaps, to caress the cards, to make them do what he wants them to do.

In his one-man show, "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants," directed by David Mamet and opening tonight at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, Jay recites esoteric verse and tells stories about esteemed past personalities in magic while performing illusions with a simple deck of cards, tricks that leave even the most jaded audiences gasping.

Sitting at a table in a stage-set living room crammed with curiosities and wood shelves--a combination of his real Los Angeles living room and Mamet's--he plays blackjack with two volunteers from the audience, dealing himself a perfect 21 every time, and poker, dealing himself four aces again and again. An audience member picks a card; after some supposed misfires, Jay pulls the correct card from a new deck that's sealed in plastic. Another audience member selects a card; Jay throws the cards in the air and the one he catches in flight is the one.

To really capture the essence of Jay's magic, though, you have to listen as well as watch. In a baroque illusion in which he moves the four queens from four separate groups of cards into a group together, the visual illusion itself is enough. But what really keeps the audience involved is his rich description of each of the queens--it's not as if they're cards; you feel as if they are real women too delicate to actually consort with regular cards. He delivers their stories in a courtly, almost hypnotic manner.

After each trick, you can hear members of the audience asking each other, "How did he do that?" Obviously a moot question since Jay will never tell. He's even amazed that observers would look at his hands while he's performing and try to figure out how the illusions are achieved.

"Why would they think they should be able to figure something out that the performer has done for years and years?" he asks evenly, sitting in one of the chairs in the theater the day after a preview performance.

"That's what makes magic different from other art forms--the concept of fooling someone, what that does to the psyche. For some people, it's a really wonderful experience. It is for me. Sometimes, though, people get angry. They think you're trying to make them feel stupid. I've had people throw punches at me or glasses of liquor, grab rosary beads and run screaming out of theaters because they thought I had read their minds. The range of emotions is just remarkable. You never know what to expect."

Until now, the audience for a Ricky Jay performance has been devoted and cultlike, catching him on the "Tonight Show," reading his books ("Many Mysteries Unraveled," "Cards as Weapons" and "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women," a history of eccentric behavior and magicians) and watching for him in Mamet's films, notably "House of Games."

Lately, though, through the formation of his Los Angeles-based consulting company, Deceptive Practices, Jay's hand seems to be everywhere in Hollywood--designing sleights and effects for a range of films from "Leap of Faith" to the upcoming "Wolf" and "I Love Trouble."

And since the publication of a profile of him in the New Yorker last spring, he finds the focus on him intensifying. His stage show had been in the talking stage for several years, but suddenly it got a production go-ahead after the piece appeared. The eight-week run then sold out so quickly that there's a line nightly waiting for ticket returns.

The audiences who do get in are, Jay observes, pretty raucous, especially when he indulges in his more physical card tricks, hurling them for distance and aiming them with laser precision to knock the heads off plastic chickens and pierce the tough hide of a watermelon, an out-of-season fruit so pricey, as he tells the audience, that it warrants its own credit in the program.

Watching Jay hurl cards at a melon, it seems so spontaneous that it's easy to forget he spends years perfecting each of his tricks--the gambling moves, for instance, are particularly difficult--and that there are tricks he's spent years on that he hasn't mastered yet. His practice doesn't just take the form of going over it again and again either. To perform his pure form of magic, Jay is also a passionate student of the field, amassing a library of thousands of rare volumes pertaining to magic, including the earliest known book about conjuring, "La Premiere Partie des Subtiles et Plaisantes Inventions," printed in Lyons, France, in 1584.

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