“Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery” has a subtitle of ‘A Night of Conversation and Performance,’ and it’s clearly an accentuation on the former. The slight-of-hand maestro brings his latest show to the Geffen Playhouse as a way to showcase his personal collection of posters, playbills and images of the great magicians and illusionists of all time. Jay’s enthusiasm from those whom he learned his artistry is heartfelt and it’s hard for audiences not to be caught up in his love of the grift game. He performs only a handful of tricks, however, so those seeing him for the first time might not fully comprehend the genius of Jay and would be smart to complement this theatergoing experience with a browsing of Jay’s clips on YouTube to see the master practicing more of his craft.
His last show, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” arrived for the first time at the Geffen in November 2006, but in the much more intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, which held 96 seats at the time. The smaller venue was perfect, as Jay needed his audience to sit up close to truly appreciate the indescribable trickery he was able to perform with a deck of cards. No matter how good of a poker player you think you may be, a word of warning: Never sit down with Jay when there’s money at stake.
This time, however, with longtime collaborator David Mamet once again directing, instead of making aces and kings disappear, much of Jay’s show is projected on a video screen. He’s brought along replicas of 108 artifacts and during both the first and second 45-minute acts, he randomly asks people questions in a humorous and roundabout way in order to choose a number as a way to get to introduce many of the printed gems.
For example, he wondered whether anyone in the crowd was using a babysitter to watch their children. When a woman answered yes, Jay wondered how old the babysitter was and she responded with 46 years old. OK, lets look at visual No. 46.
On a bare stage that only offers a chair and table, Jay sits for much of his act and joyfully riffs about characters chosen by numerical fate. On this night, he chats up stories about promoter P.T. Barnum, Las Vegas icons Siegfried and Roy and a 29-inch magician with no arms or legs (but who had 14 children).
At ticket prices that reach $125 in a city not often accustomed to paying that much, this is an expensive history lesson, yet Jay gives audiences their money’s worth when he performs a handful of illusions. Not to give away the Jay’s trickery, expect to see illusions that include playing cards moving from one hand to another (without the two ever touching), a turn involving a dice and six gift bags, and the show’s closer, an incredible mental feat that encompasses a chess board, high-computation mathematics and a Shakespearean sonnet.
At 61 years old, Jay — a longtime actor who has appeared in many of Mamet’s films, as well as David Milch’s HBO series “Deadwood” and the current season of ABC’s sci-fi drama “FlashForward” — may not be as spry and able to banter off the cuff as well as he once did, but he still ranks as one of the most unique performance artists of his time.