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Theater review: 'Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery' at the Geffen Playhouse

December 30, 2009 | 12:30 pm


Rickyjay2 Want a sure bet for an evening of classy entertainment? Then put your money on Ricky Jay, Hollywood’s favorite sleight-of-hand artist whose facility with a deck of cards (among other talents) offers consistent audience payoff in his latest one-man show at the Geffen Playhouse.

Just be sure to check your pockets as you exit the theater. “Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery” features the quick-fingered performer doing what he does best -- namely, performing tricks (cards, mentalism) and recounting odd bits of historical esoterica derived from his personal collection of artwork.

It all makes for an eclectic but also disjointed and occasionally rambling show. (The production, which played in Chicago earlier this year, is billed accurately as “An Evening of Conversation and Performance.”)

Jay seems at times to be coasting a bit on his own fame, as if he is in career-retrospective mode. But his effortless stage presence and dazzling technique make it easy to forgive the cobbled-together nature of the performance.

Working again with David Mamet, who is jokingly credited as “director of prison operations,” Jay gets right down to business. Seated at a bistro table on a mostly bare stage, the performer takes us on a virtual tour through his cabinet of wonders, intent on flaunting his knowledge of its every bizarre piece of arcana.

We learn about odd personalities from the history of magic such as Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, a 19th century card sharp; Edith Clifford, an accomplished sword swallower; and even a detour into Siegfried and Roy territory.

Audiences who know Jay primarily for his cards routine -- his previous Geffen production was “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” -- may be pleased to learn that the performer is an equally gifted raconteur, able to tell a story and score a punch line with the skill of an expert marksman.

Of course, no show starring Jay would be complete without his signature bag of magic. The less you know about these acts going in, the better. Suffice it to say, his 52 assistants make a welcome appearance and there’s a good amount of audience participation to keep things lively. Jay concludes the show with a multi-tasking act that brings together chess, cube-root calculations and the comedies of Shakespeare.

How does he pull it off? Every magician is also a bit of a con artist whose job is to seduce the audience into believing an illusion, which is to say, a lie.

Jay seems to know this better than anyone. His method of seduction involves a combination of wit, class and strategic understatement. Being conned has seldom felt this enjoyable.

Jowly and hangdog, Jay projects an avuncular presence that is crucial to his act. His laconic, slightly bemused delivery lulls the audience into a state of relaxation -- and vulnerability. A gentleman working in a historically sleazy profession, Jay keeps it unerringly sophisticated. Even a cheap-shot gag about Jeremy Piven somehow feels elevated in his hands.

Jay isn’t the kind of performer who reveals the gears inside the machine. (He goes as far as to forbid publicity photographs from being taken during the show.) Like any good trickster, Jay shows you just enough to keep you wanting more. After all, the house always wins in the end.

-- David Ng

“Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery.” The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 10. $65-$125. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photo: Ricky Jay. Credit: Jesse Dylan

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