Ricky Jay speaks infrequently about himself in his one-man show “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants,” which does not mean it is not autobiographical. “52 Assistants” is about as open as the sleight-of-hand master is willing to be in public.
The anecdotes concern gamblers, con men and illusionists, some of whom he knew and some who came of age in different centuries. He surrounds the stories with visuals — “magic tricks,” a layman would call them — and as he astonishes theater-goers with his own abilities, Jay in essence tells his life’s work. His last three decades have been defined by research, acting, writing and performing his two one-man shows; he simply prefers to tell details of the lives of people who mentored him. And when your role models are masters of deception, what choice does one have but to find a façade to hide behind?
Now making it’s third appearance in Los Angeles — it set a one-day ticket sales record at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse where it opens July 9 — anyone revisiting “52 Assistants” may well start to realize this is one man’s life and not just an act.
“You wind up learning as much about me as there is to learn,” Jay says before starting a seven week run of his show. “I get asked if I have hobbies and really this is it: Writing, acting, sleight of hand. I have other interests – I like a good basketball game, I used to enjoy boxing — but you are getting a real biography. I talk about people who truly changed my life.
“I am passionately interested in this subject. There is nothing I do in my life that feels as good as this show
Two hours before curtain Jay can be found in his dressing room shuffling cards, practicing dealing, playing with chips or actually running through his show. He likens his warm-up to a musician practicing scales or a juggler tossing balls and bowling pins.
The physical acts Jay performs in the show are sleight of hand of the highest order. Audience members are brought onstage for a poker game — and naturally they lose — and Jay ventures into the crowd for variations on the good ol’ pick a card, any card routine. He throws cards, plays with toys and gets other objects to mysteriously move about the stage, set up as a Victorian parlor.
Unlike his predecessors, Jay does a lot of talking yet unlike his peers, he is not about to let anyone in on the secrets of a trick or an illusion.
“This is unusual — it’s entertainment that can be enjoyed without having to know the specifics” Jay notes of the show that received its New York premiere 14 years ago. (He has not done a performance since it last played Los Angeles a year and a half ago). “In sleight of hand, so much is about being fooled. This is a backstage glimpse.
“When I started (this show), it was a radical perspective. I had a belief that if I find something interesting – and this may sound self-serving – if I were excited by something, that it was then worth the risk. It seems to be working. What I find funny is that there has been a spate of shows since that incorporate history. Some of it is forced and it all comes down how good it is. All I can speak to is how my show comes from a real and passionate place.”