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Once again Mamet directs magician and actor Ricky Jay in a magic show—this one with more than cards, reconstructing the history of magic up and down Broadway—"the stem."


Written and Performed by Ricky Jay.

Directed by David Mamet.

Second Stare Theatre, New York. 2 July 2002.

    Ricky Jay is a magician whose specialty is card tricks. He has been known to throw a card from fifty paces that can pierce the rind of a watermelon. He is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing a playing card 190 feet at 90 miles an hour. He is also a favorite actor in David Mamet's movies, appearing first as the Vegas Man in House of Games, then in Things Change, Homicide, Spanish Prisoner, and, most recently, Heist. Ricky Jay: On the Stem is a sequel to the popular Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. M amet has directed both.

    Ricky Jay is a burly, quick-talking monologist—more like an old-fashioned circus barker—who points out with his little cane the drawn scenes at the back of the stage of the “Stem, a pre-Broadway term for the main drag in town. In other words, it has been the midtown entertainment area in New York from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Hubert’s Flea Museum on 42 nd Street was a place I actually visited in my early youth to see the amazing feats of actual fleas, which the audience observed from close up. Ricky Jay’s performance includes fleas, but it was hard to see whether he was using real fleas to pull down the gates of the Philistines and to stage a Ben Hur chariot race. Ricky Jay is a performer wonderfully in tune with the spectators. He uses audience members for several parts of his act, and he establishes excellent rapport with them immediately It is not surprising that when he is selling candy at the beginning of the second act, in nostalgic recollection of vaudeville usherettes, that the audience is madly waving five dollar bills to buy a small box with unknown contents. Aside from Ricky Jay’s enormous accomplishments as a card shark, he emphasizes his down-home surprise at his own feats rather than flaunting his consummate skills. This demeanor takes the audience in with the belief that what he does is all actually very simple and that the magician is one of us rather than a superior, highly gifted being. This is the con-man aspect of Ricky Jay that must appeal enormously to Mamet. It all seems so rational and commonsensical. Of course, it isn’t.

    In one of the acts Ricky Jay performs, he begins with a chess movement in which he will guess all the numbers from 1 to 64 that a queen could move on a chessboard. An assistant from the audience lights these numbers up one by one on a board. To make it more interesting, he also guesses the cube root of numbers that another assistant with random cards announces from the other side of the stage. And, to heighten the audience’s interest, Jay recites lines from a Shakespearean comedy chosen by the audience—on this night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And finally, he caps it all off by singing some amusing lines from a holler song. The audience was astounded by his exceedingly humble bravado.

    You can see how all this hokey illusionism plays into David Mamet’s hands, who directs Ricky Jay with great skill and variety, always playing up to big climaxes. Like Mamet, too, Ricky Jay is learned and erudite, a born talker. He is the author of Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, a richly illustrated compendium of all sixteen issues of his now defunct journal, and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, both on display and for sale in the lobby of the theater. He is also the author of other books about cards, magic tricks, and the history of circuses, sideshows, vaudeville performers, and famous magicians and illusionists.

Most of the acts in his show revive some historical trick, like the game of fast and loose, which dates back at least to the time of Shakespeare. A long gold watch chain is made into a multiple figure 8 and then pulled easily from the fingers of audience members, who firmly believe that their finger is placed fast (rather than loose) within the circle of the figure 8. No explanation is, of course, offered, but Ricky Jay is sympathetic to the puzzlement of the participants and makes it look as if it is really a game of chance. He is so affable and easygoing that he presents and projects an entirely different kind of magic from the high-tech, flashy shows we are accustomed to seeing in night clubs and on television.