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MAGIC : It’s Just Magic. Really. : Ricky Jay--conjurer, historian, collector of exotica and David Mamet’s personal Merlin--is riding high with a sold-out Off Broadway show and new stature in the world of entertainment

<i> Laurie Werner is a free-lance writer based in New York</i>

When you meet Ricky Jay, it’s impossible not to look first at his hands. As an artist of sleight-of-hand illusions, one of the greatest performing today, he should have special hands, perhaps extra large, extra long, with an extra finger. Something.

Instead, he has hands that are surprisingly small for his bearlike size. They are also remarkably soft. Better, perhaps, to caress the cards, to make them do what he wants them to do.

In his one-man show, “Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants,” directed by David Mamet and opening tonight at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, Jay recites esoteric verse and tells stories about esteemed past personalities in magic while performing illusions with a simple deck of cards, tricks that leave even the most jaded audiences gasping.

Sitting at a table in a stage-set living room crammed with curiosities and wood shelves--a combination of his real Los Angeles living room and Mamet’s--he plays blackjack with two volunteers from the audience, dealing himself a perfect 21 every time, and poker, dealing himself four aces again and again. An audience member picks a card; after some supposed misfires, Jay pulls the correct card from a new deck that’s sealed in plastic. Another audience member selects a card; Jay throws the cards in the air and the one he catches in flight is the one.

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To really capture the essence of Jay’s magic, though, you have to listen as well as watch. In a baroque illusion in which he moves the four queens from four separate groups of cards into a group together, the visual illusion itself is enough. But what really keeps the audience involved is his rich description of each of the queens--it’s not as if they’re cards; you feel as if they are real women too delicate to actually consort with regular cards. He delivers their stories in a courtly, almost hypnotic manner.

After each trick, you can hear members of the audience asking each other, “How did he do that?” Obviously a moot question since Jay will never tell. He’s even amazed that observers would look at his hands while he’s performing and try to figure out how the illusions are achieved.

“Why would they think they should be able to figure something out that the performer has done for years and years?” he asks evenly, sitting in one of the chairs in the theater the day after a preview performance.

“That’s what makes magic different from other art forms--the concept of fooling someone, what that does to the psyche. For some people, it’s a really wonderful experience. It is for me. Sometimes, though, people get angry. They think you’re trying to make them feel stupid. I’ve had people throw punches at me or glasses of liquor, grab rosary beads and run screaming out of theaters because they thought I had read their minds. The range of emotions is just remarkable. You never know what to expect.”

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Until now, the audience for a Ricky Jay performance has been devoted and cultlike, catching him on the “Tonight Show,” reading his books (“Many Mysteries Unraveled,” “Cards as Weapons” and “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women,” a history of eccentric behavior and magicians) and watching for him in Mamet’s films, notably “House of Games.”

Lately, though, through the formation of his Los Angeles-based consulting company, Deceptive Practices, Jay’s hand seems to be everywhere in Hollywood--designing sleights and effects for a range of films from “Leap of Faith” to the upcoming “Wolf” and “I Love Trouble.”

And since the publication of a profile of him in the New Yorker last spring, he finds the focus on him intensifying. His stage show had been in the talking stage for several years, but suddenly it got a production go-ahead after the piece appeared. The eight-week run then sold out so quickly that there’s a line nightly waiting for ticket returns.

The audiences who do get in are, Jay observes, pretty raucous, especially when he indulges in his more physical card tricks, hurling them for distance and aiming them with laser precision to knock the heads off plastic chickens and pierce the tough hide of a watermelon, an out-of-season fruit so pricey, as he tells the audience, that it warrants its own credit in the program.

Watching Jay hurl cards at a melon, it seems so spontaneous that it’s easy to forget he spends years perfecting each of his tricks--the gambling moves, for instance, are particularly difficult--and that there are tricks he’s spent years on that he hasn’t mastered yet. His practice doesn’t just take the form of going over it again and again either. To perform his pure form of magic, Jay is also a passionate student of the field, amassing a library of thousands of rare volumes pertaining to magic, including the earliest known book about conjuring, “La Premiere Partie des Subtiles et Plaisantes Inventions,” printed in Lyons, France, in 1584.

“So much of sleight of hand is cumulative, it’s taking what’s happened before and then taking it in a new direction,” he explains. “That’s the way I got interested in the art; I was initially looking for material that people had forgotten about.”

From his years on the road opening for such pop acts as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (a job he inherited from friend and sometime collaborator Steve Martin), Jay has canvassed antique and curio shops around the world for rare books and vintage toys. They line the walls of his Spanish-style Hollywood apartment, so he had a few moments of panic after the recent quake.

“My first thoughts were about my friends,” he says. “But the books were a quick second. Fortunately, they’re all right. I just lost a few shelves.”

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Mixed in with his books on magic are other, more curious books. He’s a passionate devotee of “unusual entertainments,” collecting anything having to do with, among many other subjects, equestrian beekeepers, Swiss bell ringers and armless calligraphers, a subject he discussed as part of a chapter on accomplished men and women who lacked various limbs in “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women.”

“I probably have the largest collection of artifacts by armless calligraphers,” he says, his dark eyes twinkling as he grins, enjoying the fact that it’s just so much more esoteric to collect that than, say, vases or stamps. “At least, I know how strange that is. Some collectors are just so serious.”

One collection Jay briefly had under his supervision was the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts in Los Angeles, a collection of magic journals and artifacts amassed by John Mulholland, a magician, editor and friend of Harry Houdini.

In 1990, however, magician David Copperfield bought the collection for more than $2 million and tried to bring Jay in as an adviser. His first visit to Copperfield’s display area in Las Vegas was so jarring, however--to get to the collection, he had to go through an antique lingerie display and push a mannequin’s breast for entry--that Jay doesn’t want to discuss it. He says simply “no” when asked if he’s ever been back to visit it. And when asked to describe the technique of flashy Vegas performers like Copperfield, he answers plainly: “I don’t describe it.”

Unlike the lights-and-costumes approach of Copperfield and Doug Henning before him, Jay’s style is more closely akin to the great sleight-of-hand artists of decades ago, men like Nate Leipzig and Max Malini, who could work wonders vanishing objects.

As a young boy in Brooklyn, he was told about these masters by his grandfather, Max Katz, an accountant and all-around curious person. Katz was a good-enough amateur to hang around with the best magicians, such as Slydini, Francis Carlyle and Dai Vernon, described by Jay as the “greatest sleight-of-hand artist of the century.”

Surrounded and influenced by these venerable men, Jay performed his first trick at the age of 4 at a Society of American Magicians outing.

“Oh, I’m sure I was dreadful,” he recalls. (His trick was multiplying coffee creamers.) “I was some goofy little kid doing magic. At some point young boys growing up all have some experience with magic, and most stick with it for a month or two. The only difference was that I stayed with it.”

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He studied with these “transcendent” magicians and performed on a few children’s TV shows. Then, at 13 while performing an act producing doves and dressed in a toreador costume made for him by Slydini, he had a meeting with a booker for the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

“I wanted to pretend that I was from South America,” he says, “which I knew gave me a better chance to go on the Sullivan show than being a kid in high school from New Jersey (where the family had moved). I was going to mumble and speak through a translator.” His family, however, refused to go along and he didn’t get to go on the show.

Ironically, though, he now shares an office with the producer who bought the “Ed Sullivan Show” library and, ever the student, he takes advantage. “It’s great to go through the office and say I’d like to see Channing Pollack’s sensational dove act or Rene Levon, the one-armed magician. It’s wonderful that I have access to all the footage that used to excite me as a kid.”

By the time he was 18, he had moved away from home and was performing in Upstate New York, in Lake George and, later, Ithaca, putting in some time as well at Cornell’s School of Hotel Management. He tended bar in clubs, performed, started his own clubs in Ithaca and, when the comedy club boom started, talked his way in there.

At 20, he made his national TV debut on the then-New York-based “Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.”

“It was very exciting, we were at a rehearsal and I heard the voice over the loudspeaker say, ‘Johnny’s coming,’ and he came down and talked to me about what I was doing,” Jay says. “One piece was Charlie Miller’s, a great sleight-of-hand artist. Carson knew it. And that to me was just so wonderful.” (Carson was, as his viewers know, an amateur magician himself.)

Jay appeared several more times with Carson, eventually in Los Angeles, where Jay had moved to follow his mentor, Dai Vernon.

It was almost inevitable that as a master of deceptions, Jay would become involved with Hollywood, a tie initiated with the 1982 film “The Escape Artist” from co-executive producer Francis Coppola and starring Raul Julia and Teri Garr. In it, Jay advised Griffin O’Neal, who played a young magician.

“We taught him how to pick locks,” Jay says. “And later we found out that Griffin was running through the Holiday Inn in Cleveland opening everyone’s doors.”

Jay met David Mamet when the writer attended one of the magician’s shows and the two quickly became friends.

“Our interest in cons was an immediate thing that we shared,” Jay explains. “So he asked if I would do various things. He was teaching a course and I did a guest lecture. A few projects after that, he cast me in ‘House of Games.’ ” (Jay played a con man.)

He and Steve Martin (with whom he created Martin’s magician character Flydini, in which the actor unzips his pants and removes an egg, a ringing telephone, a glass of wine, etc.) teamed on 1992’s “Leap of Faith.” Jay designed the con games that Martin’s faith healer character would use as well as some of the visual effects, such as the stigmata appearing on a woman’s forehead.

Other film work came in as well, persuading Jay to formalize his consulting work by forming Deceptive Practices (whose slogan is “Arcane Knowledge on a Need-to-Know Basis”) just over a year ago with friend and fellow magician Michael Weber. Their recent efforts include teaching Julia Roberts how to pick pockets, perform sleight-of-hand tricks with a coin and cause some research papers to vanish for “I Love Trouble,” now in production. Roberts has shown “quite an ability; she’s actually very good with her hands,” Jay says.

For the upcoming film “Forrest Gump,” starring Tom Hanks as a Vietnam veteran who appears ubiquitously in comic situations, Jay and Weber devised an illusion to show a Vietnam vet amputee.

“Since Gary (Sinise, who plays the vet) was unwilling to actually have his legs amputated for the film, they had to call us in,” Jay explains dryly.

They also devised the moment onstage in Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika” in which a man climbs to the top of a ladder of light and vanishes in midair.

The film work pays well, something Jay says that at his undisclosed fortysomething age he should be considering. For the immediate future, though, his life is occupied with the run of the Off Broadway show, a run that might be extended if he can find the time.

He still has commitments to write a book, “The Magic Magic Book,” for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, a history of early trick-magic books for a series produced in tandem by artists and writers, and another book on the history of eccentric wagers.

Then he has to put out his quarterly Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, a compendium of the oddities he has unearthed, in which he details the lives of conjurers, cheats, hustlers, pranksters--his usual favorite suspects.

“In the first issue,” he says, showing a several-page publication that looks as if, in type and yellowish heavy paper, it was printed in the mid-1800s, “I do a story on dogs who stole the acts of other dogs.”

The absurdity of it is so wonderful he can’t help but smile.


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