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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Ricky Jay and his 52 assistants

July 11, 2008 |  1:58 pm

I've seen Ricky Jay work his magic with cards in David Mamet movies, on "Deadwood" and in "The Prestige," but there's nothing like seeing him live, on stage, as he is this month at the Geffen Playhouse, reprising his Mamet-directed show, "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants." His performance last night brought out a host of fans, including Buck Henry and his wife, Irene, who arrived with a posse of pals that included George Segal, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. Like everyone else in the packed house--including the woman in my row who brought a pair of binoculars to get a closer look--I stared intently at Jay's soft, supple hands, trying to steal a glimpse of how he was manipulating the cards and pulling off his tricks. All to no avail. His secrets will clearly go to the grave.

Laetbprickyjay0711 What's especially great about his act is that it combines a magician's bravura technique with a writerly passion for language. Part of the fun is hearing Jay lovingly recite all the arcane slang that earlier generations used to describe the colorful cheats who pulled off their audacious hustles and cons. Every dazzling demonstration in the art of deception is interwoven with a vivid tale about pioneering magicians of the past.

My favorite story was about Max Malini, a great early 20th century magician who performed for presidents and kings. A master of misdirection, Malini would borrow a gentleman's hat and fumble with a coin trick. When he'd finally remove the hat--voila!--a giant block of ice appeared. Malini was once invited to dine with the American governor of the Philippines, who, knowing Malini was Jewish, served a roast suckling pig with an apple in its mouth. Feigning horror and disgust, Malini hurriedly covered it with a tablecloth. Then, just as quickly, he swept aside the cloth, revealing a nice kosher chicken.

One of Jay's best routines, which he did last night, is a riveting dissertation on "The Cups and Balls," which you can watch here:

Photo of Ricky Jay in "Deadwood" by Doug Hyun / HBO