Midway through his second act, after illusionist and historian of magic Ricky Jay has produced a stunning collection of tricks, an audience member couldn’t take it anymore: After the applause died, she bellowed: “How’d you do that?” Jay smiled and sallied forth, detailing an 1851 dinner party in Vienna that featured one of his idols doing a disappearing/reappearing act with his wife’s teeth. Everyone in the house wanted to ask that question, and Jay deflected it with a dose of trivia and the trivial. It’s the balancing act that gives “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” a hit wherever it has played over the last dozen years or so, a distinct timelessness.
A decade after this one-hander made its L.A. debut, Jay’s mastery of a deck of cards is undiminished, and his stories of gamblers, card cheats and centuries-old parlor tricks brim with depth, charm and humor.
Jay assembled years of study into this parlor piece when it debuted Off Broadway and became an instant smash. Half of “52” is the oral version of the books his scholarship has yielded; the other half is the tricks, the card control, false dealing and, ultimately, the use of a playing card as a weapon.
His stories, full of characters with grandiose names of the 18th and 19th centuries, hailing from Austria, Wichita, Italy and New York, set up the card stunts.
He begins by doing an effect — separating the queens from the hoi polloi cards — in the styles of flashy American in the ’80s, a European and a turn-of-the-century dealer; enticing as it is, this is child’s play compared to what follows.
Poker and blackjack are played with audience volunteers and the master never loses a hand. Jay asks nearly everyone in the front row to pick a card out of a deck; he presents each card with a unique flair until he tosses 50 cards in the air; naturally, the two in his fists had been selected by audience members.
Genius of the piece lies in the retention of a free-wheeling, comic flow that runs parallel to Jay’s dignified lecture-demonstration. Imagine Miles Davis discussing the evolution of the trumpet and then playing each note perfectly, whether it’s his own invention or a song from centuries before. Aud doesn’t know how he does it — or the secret to any of Jay’s tricks — but the history lesson gives the sense that each of us is now grounded in the basics of card tomfoolery.
Show plays as it did a decade ago at the Tiffany, though Jay has grown bit huskier and, like the actress on the Geffen mainstage, Carrie Fisher, struggles a bit with breath control.
Updated to include a “Borat” joke, there is no greater meaning to be found here. This is the elevation of card manipulation to an art form and, in turn, a celebration of the individuals who blazed the trail.
Certainly someone had to be the first to deal from the bottom or the middle of the deck or to place a ball under one of three cups. Jay has the names, dates and locations, adding to it some elaborate elocution that gleefully transports the aud to sideshows, gaming rooms and Victorian parlors.
Kevin Ringdon’s set, one imagines, is inspired by a room in Jay’s house, with old toys, dusty bound volumes and assorted photos and posters of illusionists from magic’s heyday.
It would be interesting to see Jay pull items off the shelves and explain them: Why is there a playing card in the horns of that animal’s head, for example?
Guess that’s just part of the mystery of Ricky Jay, one that will stay guarded.