There’s no magic behind the spell “Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants” has cast on each of the ticket buyers lucky enough to get a seat during this two-month sold-out run at the Second Stage Theater. It’s talent, pure and simple: Mesmerizing, unabashed talent that presents sleight of hand as the adult art form it is.
Jay, a heavy-set, bearded man with a soft-spoken manner that hints at dark secrets, commands his 52 assistants — a deck of cards, of course — to perform in ways that truly defy description. It’s not so much that one can’t figure out his tricks — that goes without saying — but one can’t even quite grasp his intentions until he lays his cards on the table, so to speak. This is one performer who is always four or five exhilarating steps ahead of his audience.
Without relying on the New Wave humor of Penn & Teller, much less the Vegas bombast of other rabbit pullers, Jay recalls, in his stories and tone, the back-alley cheats and riverboat gamblers that employed similar “artifice, ruse and subterfuge” at the gaming tables. As he shuffles, deals and works his wonders, he weaves in historical arcana, poetry, personal anecdotes and audience banter, all in a compelling style that blends the bravado of a sideshow barker with the relaxed intensity of a first-rate professor.
No wonder, then, that Jay attracted the attention of playwright/director David Mamet, who first used Jay’s skills in his 1987 movie “House of Games.” Acting here as director, Mamet understatedly guides Jay through two hours of card tricks and other sleight-of-hand maneuvers, seeming to contribute more in mood than theatrics.
Jay takes his audience through a crash course in con artistry, demonstrating such hallowed ruses as card stacking and false dealing, along with tricks as familiar as three-card monte and as obscure as a 19th-century treat called “Everywhere and Nowhere.” He involves willing audience members throughout. Second act is a bit lighter in tone and substance, and includes broader gags like flinging, lightning-fast, cards that decapitate a plastic duck or penetrate a watermelon rind. Although Act 2 features a lovely bit with an antique “automaton”– a mechanical sideshow doll — that is as baffling as it is charming, the production could benefit by losing the intermission, cutting a segment or two, and going as a 90-minute one-act.
The production itself, though, is first-rate, with worthy contributions from top technicians. No doubt jumping at the chance to work with this artist, Broadway lighter Jules Fisher brings an appropriately moody ambiance to the small Second Stage, and Kevin Rigdon’s Victorian gaming room set is note-perfect.
Only trick still to be seen is how they’ll transfer this intimate show to a larger stage, a deserved and likely move. Jay will, no doubt, make it seem effortless.