It is well past 8 on a brisk St. Louis evening, and the audience in Washington University's Edison Theater is abuzz with anticipation. The 100-plus, carefully placed stadium-style seats have been sold out for months. That's almost always the case for a performance of "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants," whether the production is staged off-Broadway, at London's famed Old Vic, or in a modest Los Angeles theater. Tonight the house is thick with professorial types, affluent Missourians, enterprising students and local theater people, all here to see a relative unknown who is reputed to be an extraordinary performer.
* That man is Ricky Jay, America's most accomplished sleight-of-hand artist, a magician extraordinaire and inspiration to a growing cult of devotees. Jay is one of America's leading magic historians, as well as a peerless expert on the art of the con. (He named his consulting company--which gives advice about con artistry to movie makers--"Deceptive Practices.") Jay is also a character actor who keeps popping up in David Mamet movies, among them "State and Main," tentatively scheduled for release late this year. He's currently filming a movie about a mother and daughter con team with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sigourney Weaver and is starting to develop, with Mamet, a new magic show, targeted for Broadway. A new book, composed of articles that appeared in his "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," will be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
He is also a private man, obsessively private, and any attempt to unearth the real Ricky Jay--performance artist? eccentric? mountebank?--turns into a scavenger hunt. I can observe his unique talents and talk to a coterie of his longtime friends, who turn up at odd times to watch him rehearse, lecture or perform, but to be an FOJ you must be loyal and not very forthcoming. Two of Jay's best-known friends are Mamet and the actor Steve Martin, but they're not talking. Two of his lesser-known pals are Persi Diaconis, a Stanford University statistics professor and magic expert, and Steve Freeman, a California accountant and an unknown outside the world of magic, but someone who, I've been told, handles a deck of cards as skillfully as Horowitz played piano. They don't talk about Ricky Jay either.
So it seems my journey of discovery will be a one-on-one. Not only will I need to track Jay's movements and become familiar with his day-to-day routine, but I will also need to get to know him personally. I will have to merit his trust.
"EVERY PROFESSION IS A CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE LAITY," JAY INTONES during his St. Louis performance--using a clever aphorism attributed to George Bernard Shaw--and the audience is about to bear witness. Jay strolls onto the small stage in a dark, iridescent suit and a carnival barker's black shirt buttoned to the waist. He is middle-aged, with thinning hair, a bushy beard and a stout frame, more teddy bear than matinee idol. He certainly doesn't look like an athlete. Could this be the man capable of throwing an ordinary playing card over a four-story building? (Yes, it could.)
Then Ricky Jay speaks, in notes of the East Coast--New York, perhaps, maybe Brooklyn. He introduces himself, and his 52 assistants, which, as you've probably deduced, are a deck of ordinary playing cards, unmarked, unstripped, unopened. Jay fondles them, caresses them and, in his own words, as he spreads them lengthwise across a long table, describes them as having everything from "ingratiating simplicity" to "regal splendor." He should know. For years, decades, in fact, cards were his best friends, his steadfast companions, in hotel rooms, rehearsal halls and modest apartments.
For the opening effect on this night, he produces the four queens ("representing the feminine portion of the smart set") from the deck by having them jump out, one by one, as he performs a fast riffle. Then he places each queen face up in a separate corner of the table, covering each with three "common" numbered cards.
As he picks up the piles individually, the first three queens are magically changed into a commoner. Instead of a queen and a 7, 9 and 10, for example, there's a 7, two 9s and a 10. And where are the royal ladies? The fourth and final pile of cards is then revealed to be all four queens. It's a stupefying trick, and even watching it later in slow motion (an earlier performance in Los Angeles was taped for an HBO special), no one can imagine how it is done.
As the show progresses, Jay regales the audience with eloquent patter, using rhyming slang from centuries past. Quoting 15th century poet Francois Villon and employing 19th century jargon, he takes us on a trip from the beau monde to the demimonde. By the end of the evening, everyone in the audience is baffled, as emotionally drained as the congregation of a Pentecostal minister.