"Ricky Jay: On the Stem" reteams author, conjuror, historian, con-man and performer Ricky Jay with director David Mamet in something of a sequel to Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. As of this writing, the show runs one hour fifty minutes and is playing at the Second Stage Theater on 43 St. in Manhattan (just off the Stem). It will be there until July 21, unless the run is extended again.

The true sense of the word amazing is often lost these days, much like radical or incredible. Amazing should evoke the wonders of P.T. Barnum (and his friend Bailey, too). Amazing is the sword swallower, the contortionist, the fire breather. Amazing is a working clock built entirely out of LEGOs. Amazing is the edge of a sunrise refracted through a lead crystal ball splattering tiny red rainbows on your bedroom wall for only five minutes.

Ricky Jay is amazing.

His show, in incomplete synopsis:

The red velvet curtains are actually paint on plywood, complete with matte acrylic gold tassles. Chinese lanterns hang above the stage for, one assumes, extra atmosphere. The show begins slightly past 8:00, with the (real) gold curtains over the windows sliding silently shut via modern electrical magic. Onstage, the illusory drapery parts and forward steps Mr. Jay. There is much applause.

Jay wears a sharp, pinstripe, navy blue suit complete with red pocket handkerchief. In his nimble hands he holds a deck of cards. Without a word, he begins to shuffle them; fanning them out, showing us a card to hold in our minds. He places it between his lips, shuffles, and suddenly it's in his hand again. Cards appear, disappear, arrive in impossible places. With a bow he's finished, and while the audience applauds he throws his "extra" cards like chinese stars off into the wings.

"Welcome to the Stem!" he says. "The Stem is Broadway, the spine of Manhattan, where the three roads meet...," and he's off with tales of hustlers and hustles, cons and con men, an education in every box.

Like any magic show, volunteers from the audience are required. Jay asks for those with some knowledge of poker, and two men wind up seated at Jay's dealing table. Before cards, however, a simple wagering game called fast and loose. Jay describes it as a game from the 14th century, having been mentioned by Shakespeare several times in his works. Essentially, the wagerers gamble on which side of a chain-link figure eight will catch on their fingers when Jay pulls the chain away. It's a demonstration of a pre-rigged con, and for being a good sport Jay allows one of the contestants to win a "one-of-a-kind solid gold watch". The other contestant remains for a demonstration of Jay's remarkable card control abilities, with Jay dealing himself winning hands at will either by "legitimate" control of the deck of cards, or by slyly producing rigged hands from his coatsleeves.

Act one continues with more colorful stories of old New York and vaudeville, segueing into the need for yet another volunteer. This time, a man in a business suit. Requirement: have a credit card.

A short demonstration of contract fraud and Ricky Jay's remarkable forgery abilities precedes the real meat: pickpocketing. The volunteer is given a wallet which contains some cash, a photograph and a small paper envelope. Business Suit's credit card goes into the envelope, which goes into the wallet, which goes into Business Suit's breast pocket. However, to protect against thievery, Jay slips a rubber band around the wallet. Jay also takes this opportunity to deftly slide the contents out of the trick wallet. That this trick was slightly visible is no denigration to Jay... the real magic here comes much later. Jay feigns stealing the wallet but, to our surprise, the wallet remains in our volunteer's pocket. However, it is quite empty apart from the paper envelope which now contains an ownership card for the Brooklyn Bridge. Ha ha, applause; some sleight of hand has been worked here. Jay moves on.

But, suddenly, a shout from the back of the auditorium: "Telegram!". An assistant jogs down the stairs holding an envelope aloft and presents it to our volunteer. Upon opening it, he finds... his credit card. How the credit card got from the trick wallet to an offstage assistant is simply astounding. Jay never left the stage. Did he use his card-throwing skills to drop the credit card through a seam in the floor? Astonishing.

The first act closes with a "trick" that is, itself, somewhat underwhelming; the equivalent of pulling the linen from a table but leaving the dishes unmoved. But the final trick is actually a tour de force of showmanship, with Jay removing articles of clothing in honor of obscure entertainers, juggling, continually delaying the performance, and generally demonstrating that presentation can make the meanest of performances entertaining. His anti-climactic trick is capped off by the explosion of the chinese lanterns into umbrellas and streamers, the lowering of red, white and blue crepe paper and a pre-recorded burst of The Stars and Stripes Forever. With a deep bow, Jay bounds offstage and we have our fifteen minute intermission.

Act Two, while as long as Act One, is really only two major tricks held together by a lot of edifying discourse, along with a reading from a segment of The Heathen Chinee during which Jay makes half a deck of playing cards stick to his hand. It begins with Jay entering the auditorium from the rear, hawking boxes of "Ricky Jay's $100 Dollar Sweets" for five dollars a box. The real draw here is that the box may contain, in addition to candy and curios, a crisp $100 bill. The boxes went quickly. Vaudevillian hawking at its finest.

Set piece the first requires two more volunteers, this time with a working knowledge of chess. Scriblerus was a lucky winner here; he became an assistant to the master for a brief time. Jay, for this portion of the show, will present his take on the old Multiple Mental Marvel challenge by:

  • Performing a Knight's Tour on a lit chessboard, starting from a random square and proceeding entirely mentally (Imprecation was in charge of flipping the lights to mark the moves)
  • Calculating the integer cube root of any integer between one and one million as randomly drawn from a deck of flashcards by his other volunteer assistant
  • Reciting from memory a soliloquy from any of William Shakespeare's plays, as chosen by the audience. Tonight the audience was restricted to comedies, and A Midsummer Night's Dream was chosen.
  • Singing a "field holler" style song (in this case Black Betty as popularized by the band Ram Jam)

Jay sat in a chair facing the audience, with the chessboard behind him. He would make a few moves of the tour, call out "cube!" and do a calculation, recite a few lines, holler some song, and then continue with the tour. As the knight's tour got closer to the end, people in the audience's excitement became palpable and some began whispering to each other the necessary next moves... Jay didn't appear to be able to hear them. Scriblerus smiled with each line of Shakespeare spoken correctly. The applause was deafening.

The grand finale featured a classic "disappearing ring" trick helped out by an automaton tree which, when switched on, would bear real fruit and drop leaves. An audience member's ring was appropriated by Jay and placed in a silk scarf which was then burned. The automaton tree was switched on, and sweet music box chiming accompanied the tree's slow transformation. Large oranges slowly pushed out beyond the leaves, and Jay tossed them to audience members. An orange on top of the tree was metallic, and broke open to reveal fluttering mechanical birds. They produced a silk scarf, in which was a ring. Jay took the ring and folded it into one of the Playbills lying around, creating an envelope. Within that envelope was another envelope. Within that envelope was yet another envelope and within that envelope was a yet smaller envelope containing... orange seeds. Ring goes in, orange seeds come out. Jay returns to the tree and plucks a final orange. He produces a pen knife, and there is a collective gasp from the audience as what must be dawns on us... the ring is somehow in the orange. Jay cuts away the rind and produces, from a hollow orange, the original ring. Cue astonishment.

That's that. Jay retreats behind the "curtains", but returns for a quick encore. Here he displays more of his amazing card control abilities, finding five or six audience-chosen cards in a randomized deck. In a final flourish he stabs a face-down card with a knife, and returns with the card he was looking for skewered.

You cannot leave Ricky Jay's show without wanting to know him, or possibly even be him. Jay tells the story that he locked himself in a room for a year to hone his abilities; you leave feeling willing to do the same. In these days where most fantastical occurances in popular entertainment can be explained away by computer graphics, it is all the more astounding to have your eyes and mind fooled by just a man and his hands.

That's entertainment.

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