Magic hasn’t been much seen on “the Stem,” which is to say Broadway, this season, and that’s one reason why Ricky Jay’s reappearance in the neighborhood feels particularly welcome. In his new show at the Second Stage Theater, the sleight-of-hand specialist provides an assortment of old-school magic tricks that leave the audience tittering in wonderment, but he also engages in a more rarefied form of conjuring. Through colorful commentary that suggests the literary influence of the show’s director, David Mamet, Jay pays loving tribute to the many varieties of live entertainment that once flourished on Broadway and, one by one, did their own disappearing acts.
For in addition to being a master manipulator of cards, Jay is also a sort of archaeologist of lost forms of entertainment, the more scurrilous and strange the better. He’s in thrall to the vaudevillians, card sharks, burlesque performers and even looser characters who used to rub shoulders with the more highbrow occupants — Jacob Adler in a Yiddish “Hamlet,” “translated and improved,” as it was advertised — of the Broadway marketplace.
And so, in between tricks, he plays the sideshow barker, enticing us in to sample the strange sights. Aided by set designer Peter S. Larkin’s stage-high scroll, featuring a handsomely rendered drawing of the myriad attractions that once clustered around the “Stem,” Jay guides us on a fascinating tour through the more exotic byways of Broadway history. He stops to offer up samples now and then, and his enthusiasm is nothing if not infectious.
Some of the free samples are intentionally hoary: The severed hand and head bit, which doesn’t require much head-scratching to figure out. More enchanting, in a whimsical way, is a mechanical tree that appears to sprout real oranges. The softly glowing lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer helps turn the clock back to restore some of the air of mystery to these old-school apparitions. And Jay’s preposterous narration — did the Stem ever really host “tube-diving Chinese acrobats” or an armless violinist? — adds savory comic flavoring to even the most pedestrian bits.
The high point of the show’s digressions into old showbiz lore is Jay’s re-creation of a flea circus. In this deliriously silly diversion, Jay treats us to a flea Samson, “annihilating the temple of the Philistines”; a flea Ophelia, skydiving to her doom in a teacup; and a flea chariot race. How’s that? Has to be seen to be believed.
So do the tricks, naturally enough, which include standard card-guessing tricks — the kind that confound no matter how often you see them — and more complicated feats, as when Jay makes objects carefully secreted in a wallet in a man’s pocket appear to reappear elsewhere. The most dazzling performance comes in act two, when Jay simultaneously plays a mind-blowing game of mental checkers (exclusively using a chess knight’s move to hopscotch across a grid of 64 squares without hitting any square twice); calls out the cube roots of seemingly randomly selected numbers up to a million; and tosses out snatches of verse from a Shakespeare play (randomly chosen by an audience member, naturally).
Sings, too. Try that one at home.
But Jay’s nostalgic romp through Broadway’s fantastical past is maybe even more spellbinding. It makes the street’s current occupants seem infinitely more mundane. Then again, curiosities still abound: In truth, “Mamma Mia!” may one day be discussed with the same combination of fascination and disbelief that Jay brings to his digressions on the subject of that one-armed violinist or the flea circus.