The power of theater lies in its ability to transport one from the everyday nature of life to a world of the creators’ choice. Many shows employ elaborate sets, detailed costumes and numerous performers, yet never come close to tapping the transcendent power of theater. It is a tribute, then, to the supreme talents of Ricky Jay that, working with a minimal set and little more than himself and a deck of playing cards, he is able to bring the audience thoroughly into his own universe—a place where card cheats are spoken of with the same respect reserved for the greatest innovators in history and the audience is dazzled not only by a performer’s dexterity but by the simple passion with which he shares his life’s work. In the process, Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, directed by David Mamet and ensconced in the lush Market Theater, registers as the most engaging show in town.
Though Jay is among the best in the world at his craft, having written multiple books, coached celebrities including Julia Roberts and starred in his own television specials, most are likely to recognize him more for the character roles he has played, particularly in Mamet films such as the recent State and Main. While impressive in those endeavors, his first love is live performing, and local audiences are quite fortunate to witness him in this show, his most successful and well received to date.
On its surface, the piece is a magic show. Jay has audience members take a card and place it back in the deck so that he can then locate it. Jay cuts the deck to an ace (repeatedly). Jay even pulls out reputedly the oldest of magician’s tools—the cup and balls. Yet Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants is far more than a magic show, it is a theatrical experience blessed with wit and genuine charm. Jay sets the tone early as, after he cuts an ace for the first time, he drolly deadpans, “Well on my way to the luckiest night of my life.”
Luck, though, isn’t an element in Jay’s performance. He proceeds instead with a self-assuredness that is not arrogant but rather appealing, even comforting. And he backs up that confidence with tremendous skill in manipulating a deck of playing cards. At one point, having dealt an audience member two pair, he asks what card he might like drawn next from the deck. The audience member, already wowed by Jay’s abilities and sure a full house is coming, shrugs and tells Jay that whichever of the already paired cards he had planned to give him was okay. Jay retorts, with the perfect air of mock indignation, “I wouldn’t have asked if I couldn’t have given you either.”
Jay’s dexterity astonishes; watching him one feels not tricked by his feats but rather in awe of his abundant talents. When he cuts cards against an audience member who has drawn a two, he muses, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could cut a three?” He remarks matter-of-factly, “I can,” as he does precisely that. Soon after the show begins, the audience is convinced there is nothing Jay can’t do with a deck of cards. Jay proves that in an inspired second-act sequence in which he treats a deck of playing cards as deadly weapons to assault a wall, a plastic duck and, in a moment of delightfully frenzied lunacy, a watermelon.
And yet, that Jay’s art is sleight of hand and his specialty is handling cards, in many ways, only incidental to the power of his performance. Most essentially, he is a master of words. His tremendous facility with language, his mastery of speaking rhythms and his effortless ad-libs all establish him as a classic raconteur.
If, at times, the flavor of his stories and the depth of his nostalgia recall Borscht Belt, the razor-sharp timing and perfect phrasing are pure Mamet. Jay’s skills at handling such material as well as their presence in the show attest both to the basis for the two men’s friendship and to Mamet’s directorial influence on the evening.
In the way, though, that Jay paces the stage when delivering a story, there is something which is his own—a certain weight, almost sadness, which comes with the recognition that he is among the last of a dying breed. In one moment of seemingly innocuous levity, he turns to an audience member and explains, “So I have to ask you to take a card. That’s all I do... in life.” In Jay’s pause there is more than good comic timing—there is the burden of truth. He is a grown man who plays with cards. This isn’t exactly an adult profession, and the era of the great card sharks has long since vanished.
On one occasion, Jay even wonders what it would be like not to find the cards that audience members selected. However, he quickly comes around and, with a wry twinkle, dismisses the idea: “Just a thought,” he quips. Jay is simply too talented, both with his hands and with his words, to stop performing. Even if he doesn’t inspire the next world-famous sleight-of-hand artist, he has too many stories, too many tricks not to share them.
And through Nov. 24, he has certainly found a setting well suited to his art. The Market Theater, located in Harvard Square, has been renovated from the old Pi Eta building to a theater space that reminds one of a Victorian drawing room. With its hardwood floors, gold-tinged chandeliers and precious relics on the walls, it casts Jay as the humble performer eager to please his royal audience. This is a delicious setup for the evening, because as dedicated as Jay is to entertaining, he also always appears to savor the fact that he’s a bit more clever than those whom he entertains. It’s not just that he knows how to do something better than anyone else in the room, it’s that he knows he’s carrying on an art form with a rich and oddly noble history.
Following a typically brilliant display of his “luck,” Jay jokes, “Wouldn’t it be nice if life were like this?” It would be nice if like was like the inside of the Market Theater for the next three weeks: There are few things in life more enjoyable than glimpsing a gifted artist at the peak of his craft.
Editor’s Note: Since its 1994 premiere, Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants has played to sold out crowds around the world. Jay and Mamet are currently collaborating on a new show expected to premiere next year in New York.
Ricky jay & his 52 assistants