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A Neat Trick, That

Ricky Jay has a lot up his sleeve, including a new book and yet another film role, in 'Heist.'

November 09, 2001|ELLEN BASKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ricky Jay may be best known for his card tricks, but these days he's performing something of a cultural hat trick, appearing in three venues at the same time. And it's no magical sleight of hand: Jay co-stars in David Mamet's new film "Heist," which opens today; he has a new book out, "Jay's Journal of Anomalies"; and his renowned one-man show, "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants," has just opened in Boston.

In "Heist," Jay's Pinky Pincus is partnered with Gene Hackman and Delroy Lindo as a trio of well-seasoned thieves who have been working together for some time. Hackman is ready to get out of the game and sail off into the sunset with his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life spouse). But circumstances outside his control intrude and, as Jay puts it, "there's one more scam, one more scheme, one more piece of business." In other words, one more heist.

"We are all versed in the numerous skills of armed robbery," Jay notes of his on-screen comrades. "And I hold my own, I'm proud to say. We're a community of men, in that wonderfully Mamet-ian way."

While Jay is probably most familiar to mainstream audiences for his role as villainous Henry Gupta in the 1997 James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies," he has been a regular presence in Mamet's films ("Heist" is his sixth) since "House of Games" (1987). In last year's "State and Main," Jay appeared as a small-town luncheonette proprietor. Mamet is also the director of "52 Assistants," which is currently running at Cambridge's Market Theatre. The show was an off-Broadway success in 1994 and ran in Los Angeles at the Tiffany Theater in 1996.

A new production, "Ricky Jay on Broadway," is slated to open in New York next spring. Once again Mamet will be at the helm, and the only co-stars will be Jay's ever-reliable, ubiquitous "assistants"--his playing cards. Their demands on him are many, but they never bicker over billing or insist on dental coverage. And he never leaves home without them. "I can be attacked anywhere," Jay offers by way of explanation, perhaps alluding to the theme of "Cards as Weapons," the title of his 1977 book (long out of print but a favorite among collectors) that presents tongue-in-cheek instruction on the defensive uses of a stacked deck.

On stage, as Jay stupefies the audience with his tricks, he keeps up a constant verbal patter, demonstrating his vast knowledge of the history of magic and all manner of singular and often peculiar entertainments. He is an avid researcher and collector of the craft's printed artifacts, a number of which are on display in "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," first a quarterly journal and now a lavishly produced hardcover book.

"Jay's Journal" is a compendium of all 16 issues of the now-retired quarterly, the contents of which are fairly well summarized by the book's subtitle: "Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Imposters, Pretenders, Side-Show Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments."

"When you're writing about the underbelly, and you're writing about low life, and you're writing about carny--these are all things that elicit a kind of sordid, tacky response in many people. And I love the stuff," Jay enthuses during a recent interview in Santa Monica. "I also feel that it should have a presentation that's justified. The pieces of art which accompany these strange performances are, to my mind, often beautiful. And they should be presented beautifully."

The tale of the Armless Calligrapher is a particular favorite of Jay's. "Matthew Buchinger was born in Germany in the 17th century and was proficient at a number of skills," Jay explains, the smooth, inviting modulation of his recitation harking back to the carnival barker he briefly was years ago. "I am truly intrigued by this guy, and I keep finding out new material about him all the time. Buchinger played more than eight musical instruments, some of his own devising; he did magic tricks, he was an extraordinary exponent of calligraphy--and he was never more than 29 inches tall and he had no legs or arms."

Jay's fascination with the arcane history of the odd dates back to his late teens, by which time he had already been a practicing magician for more than a decade, "performing badly and with no historical context, at the age of 7," he is quick to point out. Born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, Jay was introduced to the world of magic by his grandfather Max Katz, an amateur magician who exposed him to many of the elder statesmen of the field.

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