Mamet's Merlin

Mamet's Merlin What laughs are to a comedian and tears are to a tragedian, gasps are to a magician, and Ricky Jay generates a goodly amount in his second Second Stage offering. "This is one of the things artists don't talk about too much," he admits. "Some I hear, some I don't. You have to rely on people around you to say, 'That's going really well. People are gasping.'"

What laughs are to a comedian and tears are to a tragedian, gasps are to a magician, and Ricky Jay generates a goodly amount in his second Second Stage offering. "This is one of the things artists don't talk about too much," he admits. "Some I hear, some I don't. You have to rely on people around you to say, 'That's going really well. People are gasping.'"

They can say that again. The power to astonish — a lost (or, certainly, mislaid) art of late — makes a robust comeback in Ricky Jay: On the Stem. Like its predecessor — Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, which played two different sold-out gigs here — this is a sleight-of-hand amusement built around a deck of cards — and, by extension, around those who play them for fun and profit. Ricky Jay has been in that number since the age of four, when his maternal grandfather, an accomplished amateur magician named Max Katz, first exposed him to card tricks. Today, Jay brings new meaning to the moniker "cardsharp" and has been known to throw from 50 paces a playing card into the flesh of a watermelon. (Perhaps you know his book, "Cards as Weapons.") He also made the Guinness Book of Records for throwing a playing card 190 feet at 90 miles per hour.

Those who make their dubious living by the turn of the card are, by definition, a mixed bag of tricksters, and Jay clearly delights in dipping into this bag for his mesmerizing monologues, having thoroughly (even obsessively) researched the subjects who cropped up around the turn of the century on the fringe of a civilized society — "on the stem," in other words. "It was another way of saying the main drag of the city, and it was particularly used around here," he notes. "Broadway is a term that doesn't appear until after the turn of the century."

His approach to these shifty denizens "on the stem" is both scholarly and scampish, betraying an authentic love and knowledge for those who preceded him at the gaming tables and those who toiled a little farther out on the legalistic, ethical limb. (Perhaps you know his book, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women," which chronicles the bizarre performers found in circuses and side shows — or his most recent tome, a compendium of all 16 issues of his now-retired quarterly, "Jay's Journal of Anomalies.") The contents of his books and shows are summed up in the latter's subtitle: Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Imposters, Pretenders, Side-Show Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments.

Jay fairly spiels over with a flavorful facsimile of the above, delivering his fact-stacked banter like a side-show barker, which, indeed, he was when he wasn't an author, actor, accountant, encyclopedia salesman and singer with the group Chico and the Deaftones. First and last, he is a magician — and the theatrical pedigree falling under his spell is indeed impressive, starting with no less than David Mamet. Mamet turned director to get his own plays to the marketplace intact, and the only times he has directed anything he hasn't written were the two plays written by Jay. Mamet calls Jay's mind "the ultimate repository of arcane information" and tickles the fascinating tidbits into dramatic place.

Jules Fisher, who lit both shows, introduced them. "Jules knew David was interested in the kinds of things that I was doing and set something up. We hit it off almost instantly. That was almost 20 years ago, when I stopped working clubs. It just became obvious to me that, when I was performing live, I wanted to be in a theatre — that this was the right venue for me." Mamet encouraged the thought after Jay lectured his acting class and drew on Jay's technical advice for a play (The Shawl) and a film ("House of Games").

The latter accommodated two debuts — Mamet's as director and Jay's as actor — and the result prompted them to reteam five more times ("Things Change," "Homicide," "The Spanish Prisoner," "State and Main" and "Heist"). Then, a Mamet actor and frequent co-star, William H. Macy, introduced him into another weirdly off-center world — Paul Thomas Anderson's ("Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia") — and another writer-director was charmed by an abruptly full-blown character actor with loads of lowlife potential. "I've never thought of their motivation at making me play such sleazy guys, but I like it. We should all be so lucky to work with people that talented. This is my mid-life career. I never aspired to be a film actor, and I'm not out begging to be put in films. I've been able to be selective and work with people whom I truly admire and who write scripts that are just a pleasure to do."

Given that Jay's a guy who likes his privacy and his secrets, it took considerable PR wizardry — lots of conjuring and cajoling from press agents — to make the magician appear at all for interviews. He subscribes to the less-you-know-better-off-you-are theory, that talking it up only takes away from the ultimate effect. "I've never had any problem with reviewers," he allows, "but the one thing I fear is that someone tells too much about an effect or that someone isn't surprised. The element that I really care about is surprise. It's not nearly about fooling someone as it is about surprising them and making the entertainment come from that surprise. I think my show is structured so that they are being surprised not only in terms of the performance but in terms of the patter as well."

In any event, the gasps and gags have been extended into August — and could go longer.

—By Monty Arnold