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[Theater reviews]

52 pick-up
Ricky Jay comes to Cambridge


You have to love a guy who collects old books and theater programs about " conjurers, cheats, hustlers, hoaxsters, pranksters, and pretenders, " not to mention " armless calligraphers, " and then makes a living reviving the tricks of their trade. Magician, actor, and historian Ricky Jay is a one-man entertainment engine devoted to the art of illusion and sleight of hand.

This fall will mark his arrival in the Boston area as a household name. His one-man show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, which is directed by playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, begins a five-week run at Cambridgeís Market Theater October 27. Jay also turns up as a con man in Mametís new film, Heist, which hits local screens November 9. And the performer is equally engaged in promoting his latest book, Jayís Journal of Anomalies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a collection of the articles about popular entertainment that heís published periodically since 1994. An earlier tome, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, was a bestseller that CBS made into a television special.

Jay admits he weaves stories of conjurers past into his stage presentation. " But I never want to mention it for fear of scaring someone away. However, the critics always wind up talking about how poetry, history, and literature are all tied into a presentation almost entirely about playing cards. Itís fairly unusual for a piece of theatrical entertainment. I am serious, yet I try to make the material entertaining, whether itís the show or the book. I donít have much tolerance for academic works that are unreadable. "

When Jay made his New York stage debut several seasons back in Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, the show set records as the fastest-selling attraction ever to appear Off Broadway, and it garnered him both Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards. During the Market Theater run, he and Mamet, who lives in Newton, will be preparing a new production thatís slated for an Off Broadway opening next spring.

While other four-year-olds were listening to Dr. Seuss stories, Jay was learning card tricks from his grandfather, who was an amateur magician. " His buddies were some of the great magicians of the era, including jugglers and ventriloquists as well. Thatís the world that we lived in when I grew up in Brooklyn. At some point later in my development, I started looking to the past for material. " By the time Jay was seven, he had made his first television appearance as a magician, graduating to The Tonight Show when he entered Cornell ó where he remained a freshman for " many years, " he says. " It was the end of the í60s. There wasnít a great deal of planning whether Iíd be in school this week or off performing in a nightclub or doing television. "

For Jay, the history of magic was personified in the life and career of his grandfatherís friend Dia Vernon, whom he describes as " the greatest sleight-of-hand artist of the 20th century. " Jay moved to Los Angeles to work with Vernon, who died a few years ago at the age of 98. He calls Vernon his mentor, along with Charlie Miller, another of the old-time practitioners of the art.

On stage, Jay comes across as the guy next door who talks too much when he meets you in the hall. He moves his hands in patterns that have been rehearsed as carefully as one of George Balanchineís ballets. And though he makes it seem that the deck of cards he carries is an outgrowth of his 10 fingers, he delivers a non-stop monologue, further distracting the audience. " I donít know if anyone would think that sleight of hand would be nearly the same [as dance], but certainly there is a choreography that takes place. Itís beyond the hand, in the way the body moves and uses gesture to misdirect attention. "

The time that Jay spends working in films, acting on stage, and writing, along with advising film, stage, and television productions in the art of illusion through his company, Deceptive Practices, varies from year to year. Deceptive Practices provided the wheelchair that made Gary Sinise appear as if he had no legs in Forrest Gump and the ladder of light on which a character climbed to Heaven and disappeared in stage productions of Angels in America. " The three involvements of the moment for me are the show, the film, and the book. But the thing thatís going to give me the most pleasure is standing on a stage. It was 16 years from the time the first producer said he would do Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants until it opened. That will give people an inkling about what show business is really like. "

Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants is at the Market Theater October 27 through November 24. Tickets are $55; $50 for seniors and WGBH members; $10 student rush. Call (617) 576-0808.

Issue Date: October 18 - 25, 2001