Call Me a Sucker, But I Love Ricky Jay

Here are two or three reasons why I love Ricky Jay and so should you:

It’s always an unexpected pleasure to be fooled by him. His new one-man show, Ricky Jay: On the Stem , at the Second Stage Theatre, is partly a stirring tribute to New York’s historic hustlers and mind-benders. But as con men go, nobody does it better than this master hoaxer, card sharp, scam artist, magic man, showman, memory man, carnival barker, reciter of poetic doggerel or Shakespeare, spinner of tales, alchemist, historian, scholar, impostor and unapologetic cheat. Mr. Jay is the lugubrious gentleman in the snappy suit who looks straight into our wide eyes and announces, in effect: “Don’t trust me for a second. I am the God of Lies, and that’s the truth.”

Yet he fools us just the same-reducing us to a state of befuddled, happy wonder. No matter how wary we are, we’re all his gullible victims. Laurence Olivier once came offstage after a spellbinding performance as Othello and was heard to whisper as the audience went wild: “Fooled them again.” Our man goes one better. He warns us in advance.

Take this extraordinary example from his show. Sleight of hand is Mr. Jay’s specialty, and so I always watch those spongy fingers of his with extra care (but to no avail). A volunteer from the audience comes sheepishly onstage to play poker with him. The volunteer knows-and we know-that he hasn’t got a prayer. Mr. Jay can produce a winning hand for himself every time. Very well, we think; the cards must be marked in some way. He knows the cards by their feel . But here comes the sting.

He knows what we’re thinking. (He controls people as well as cards.) So he says to the volunteer, “You deal the cards. You still won’t win, but you deal the cards.” The volunteer deals the cards very carefully to himself and to Mr. Jay, whose empty hands are resting on top of the table. Naturally the volunteer has dealt himself a loser’s hand, and he’s somehow dealt Mr. Jay four aces.

I’m a sucker, I admit. But how does he do it? Late that night after his show, I turned to my beloved and said, “The four aces couldn’t possibly have been up his sleeve. His hands were on the table.”

And she said, “Go back to sleep.”

A little while later, I was wondering how he got the wedding ring in the orange. To say that Mr. Jay tricks us doesn’t quite do it. “Trick” is too lowly a word for him. In his last show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants -his 52 assistants were in the pack of cards-he showed us how to deal an ace from the bottom of the deck. “That’s cheating,” he announced somberly. Then, at lightning speed, he produced the ace from the middle of the pack. He was telling us, “Now that’s not cheating. That’s unbelievable.”

We can actually say of Ricky Jay that he’s one of a kind. Magicians have always been a peculiar breed. Who, after all, would spend their lives dressed in white tie and tails conjuring pigeons from thin air? Who would wish to? First you have to sort of wrap the pigeons up. Then you have to hide them in the secret pockets of your tails, and so on. But Mr. Jay doesn’t do pigeons. Pigeons are too mundane.

He hurls playing cards at Greek statuary instead. He used to throw cards at watermelons so they sliced right through them. But nowadays he prefers statuary. Where on earth does he practice such things? Does he have a large garage? We know so little about him. He doesn’t seem to “belong.” He’s out of time.

The glitzerama Vegas fakery of a David Copperfield or the pseudo-hip comedy of Penn & Teller are not for him. Ricky Jay is so unhip, he’s hip. He’s a serious, bearded fellow, suggesting the courtly and the professorial. The red carnation in the buttonhole of his pinstripe suit gives him the unexpected air of a Mephistophelean Jackie Gleason. He’s an eccentric man-a throwback to a bygone age of sideshows and pranksters, mechanical marvels and hustlers who’d sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

David Mamet, who must be the founder of the Ricky Jay fan club, directs the new show, as he did the last, with aplomb and feeling for the traditional devices of wonder. The set is a cardboard theater with scrolling period illustrations of the “Stem,” or the louche Broadway crossroads of the world “where Oedipus met his father.” (Mr. Jay appears in Mr. Mamet’s films as con men who look like Ricky Jay.) The renowned dramatist has his own obsession with the art of the con, of course, as well as with the precise, near-ornate patter language of the hustle. For the scholarly Mr. Jay, the eggs he juggles are therefore “the progeny of a learned hen,” and the members of his flea circus are “parasites for sore eyes.”

“Stop me puh-leeze ,” he says at one of his really bad jokes, and the “parasites for sore eyes” is happily one of them. He’s a vaudevillian at heart, a fanciful linguist, a salesman of deception, an archetypal trickster, a circus master, a keeper of a near-extinguished, priceless flame. Who else on earth re-creates such innocent delights as the fabled Hubert Museum, home to the smallest show on earth, the performing fleas and possibly their understudies who-before our very eyes!-will now re-enact for our approbation the chariot race from Ben Hur and Ophelia’s suicide by drowning?

Who else does it? Tell me that . There have been times, particularly when studying Mr. Jay’s books on his mysterious art and weird interests -Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women , the more recent and excellent Jay’s Journal of Anomalies -when I’ve wondered if his rigorous, encyclopedic knowledge of strange historic happenings isn’t itself a gigantic con. Who, for example, could possibly dispute his professorial essay about dental deceptions and the historic link between the magician and the molar?

Well, the learned footnotes and illustrations going back to mountebanks of the 10th century are good enough for me. But then I believe everything the awesome Ricky Jay tells us. Because he can prove it. Because, as the oracles say of their powers: “What I say will happen will surely happen.” Roll up! Roll up! Now you see it, now you don’t ….

Arthur Miller’s Golden Goose

Arthur Miller’s first play for Broadway, which he wrote when he was 25, closed after four performances, and for a while he resolved never to write for the theater again. The Man Who Had All the Luck (subtitled “A Fable”) has been given a first-rate, spiffy Broadway revival by Scott Ellis for the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. For me, the fascination of this early play is that it contains within it the seeds of every major Arthur Miller drama of the future.

The Man Who Had All the Luck is a curious tale about a pleasant young mechanic who had too much good fortune. In its fabulist way, the ambitious piece actually reverses the American Dream to tell us that too much luck is a curse. Whatever the troubled Midwestern hero touches, turns to gold. But he resents the fates that bless him. The play could be retitled The Man Who Had All the Doubt , and Mr. Miller’s preachiness is laid on. But here, particularly in the effective second act, is the great dramatist uncannily in the making.

The unknown Arthur Miller who became “Arthur Miller” was, at 24, already writing plays anchored in mythic stories about the arbitrariness of fate, the price of failure and success, and the false gods of the American Dream. Within the young, unformulated drama are the enduring morality tales to come of fathers and sons and rival brothers, of self-delusion and tragic destiny.

The ensemble is very strong indeed. Special mention must be made of the exceptional performance by Sam Robards as the Austrian Gustav Eberson. He had me in stitches of laughter playing the pilot who crash-lands into G.B. Shaw’s Misalliance , which played at the Roundabout a while ago. I recall glancing at my Playbill on that occasion to see who the actor was. There’s no problem recognizing him this time. The young actor in the making has finally arrived, I trust. Mr. Robards’ dignified, self-effacing performance here is a gem.