Soon, the violence and deception will begin. Ricky Jay will take the stage, produce the tools of his aged trade and shuffle them in a pair of small, fleshy hands. Queens will migrate. Aces will huddle in foursomes. Simple playing cards may spring to service as boomerangs or knives, sailing high above the stage or piercing a watermelon's hide at 10 paces.
But for now, the hands are at rest. The magician, bearded and paunchy, sits in the front row of a dark and empty theater. He is being interviewed, and he is withholding the truth.
"Palming a card," Jay says, "is an unbelievably complex action. And a real description of that--you really don't quite get that [in the literature of conjuring and magic] until the turn of the century."
Jay, who takes his research into magic's history and literature as seriously as he does his performances, has been asked to name the book he would take with him to a deserted island. The first title to arise in his mind is that of a seminal text on how to covertly manipulate playing cards. It was published in Toronto in 1902.
Jay first read the volume as a child in Brooklyn, where his grandfather introduced him to magic. When the chance came to buy a first edition a few years ago, Jay shelled out several hundred dollars to do so. And no, he's not telling its name. Magicians make their livelihoods from the secrets in that book, and he doesn't believe in drawing back the curtain.
"It's very hard to talk about magic," says Jay, who usually disdains interviews. "Here you ask a benign book question, and we're off into secrets. A perfect start."
Most of Jay's life has been spent in the pursuit of such secrets, and his mastery of them is the centerpiece of his one-man show, "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants." The production, directed by David Mamet and produced by Joel Silver, tonight begins a sold-out five-week run at the 99-seat Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard.
In an era of galloping technology, this is throwback magic, by turns comic and noir, set in a parlor lined with Victorian wallpaper. The same show flourished off-Broadway in New York for five months in 1994, then traveled to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater and the Melbourne International Arts Festival, where Jay's last performance was in November.
"I don't have words to describe it," says producer Silver, who first saw Jay perform in New York in spring 1994. "He did this thing with the four queens. . . . By the time he was done, if he had said, 'I want you all to know that you're all now sitting on the ceiling,' I would have believed him. When it's over, you have no conception of reality."
Now Jay is at the wheel of his car, pulling off possibly the most common sleight-of-hand trick in Los Angeles: the left turn against oncoming traffic. This is not a gimme--he's fighting his way off of Sunset Boulevard--and it's not as familiar a maneuver as one might expect. Although Jay's office is along Sunset and he has lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade, he puts in only about 4,000 local driving miles a year.
After all, he has his cards to caress. He practices with his cards at least two to three hours daily and keeps about 75 decks in his apartment. They lie in a hallway niche, on the kitchen counter, by his bed, in just about every room but the bathroom.
He also reads and writes a lot. Frequently dipping into his own library for illustrations or references, Jay edits his own fine-press scholarly quarterly, "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," which features tipped-in rich color artwork (often drawn from his own collection) and articles on otherwise-forgotten eccentric acts of generations past, from armless calligraphers to the men who grow taller on command.
His 1986 book, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women"--written in longhand using a calligraphic pen, the author says--documented the lives and work of such performers across three centuries and five continents and was later remade as a television special. Jay has also been asked to write an entry on conjuring and deception for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Invited to perform at a recent conference on technology, he introduced himself as the event's "token Luddite." But in recent years, modern entertainments have supplied a hefty share of his income and exposure. Jay has appeared on camera in David Mamet's films "House of Games," "Things Change" and "Homicide," and the magician's consulting firm, Deceptive Practices, has furnished expertise to various other productions, including "Forrest Gump" and the Broadway staging of "Angels in America: Perestroika."