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While Cutting Cards, Ricky Jay Deals in Erudition and History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 45 minutes before curtain, and people in tweed coats were milling about, sipping Chardonnay and chatting quietly among themselves. Just your average pre-theater crowd etiquette, except at a table nearby they were selling a book called “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women,” and the people in tweed had come to watch a man pierce the “pachydermatous layer” of a watermelon with a playing card.

In other words, the Irvine Barclay Theatre was presenting Ricky Jay, the confidence man/sleight-of-hand wizard/connoisseur of all things freakish and unusual, now noted as a con-man consultant to the movie business and FODM (Friend of David Mamet), who has appeared in many Mamet films, including “House of Games,” “Homicide” and “The Spanish Prisoner.”

Tuesday night, Jay opened a two-week run of his show “Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants,” playing to 150 people who sat in risers rigged on the Irvine Barclay’s stage.

It’s a show (directed by Mamet) that first drew raves off-Broadway in 1994 and was last performed in Los Angeles two years ago at the Tiffany Theater.

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The 52 assistants of the show’s title is a deck of cards, although that’s a philistine’s interpretation. As he explained in a memorable 1993 New Yorker profile, Jay--taking a cue from one of his magic-world gurus, the late Dai Vernon--believes cards are “like living, breathing human beings and should be treated accordingly.”

“Some are suicidal just like you and me,” Jay said Tuesday night, in a kind of extended preamble to the proceedings.

For the next two hours, Jay amazed and astounded; yes, those are words tossed about in the magic community but they really do apply here. In a trick called “The Four Queens,” he made four piles of four cards, each containing a queen, and somehow made the queens all come together in one pile. He pulled a member of the audience and asked her to pick a card, then write her name on the card with a black felt tip pen. This card later appeared among a fresh pack that Jay had just unwrapped. By the time he pierced the aforementioned watermelon, the trick seemed mere comic relief next to the sleight-of-hand artistry.

As his fans well know, Jay doesn’t get by simply on dazzle or other god-awful magic conventions--cheesy music, pyrotechnics, leggy assistants. He’s a man of erudition, just as prone to quoting George Bernard Shaw as George Devol, a 19th century riverboat gambler who made his living as a head-butter.

The author of the aforementioned “Learned Pigs,” Jay also publishes the quarterly Jay’s Journal of Anomalies and has a consulting business, Deceptive Practices, offering “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.”

Jay’s scholarly mind, coupled with his past life as a carnival barker, makes his shows worthwhile as lecture alone. When he demonstrates various forms of three-card monte or hidden-ball tricks, he keeps up a running oral history as he goes. And you could listen to him go on all day about, for instance, the Wonderful Little Man of Nuremberg (ne Matthew Buchinger), who grew to be only 29 inches, had no feet or arms but did have 14 children.

The Irvine Barclay is officially saying the entire run of “52 Assistants” is sold out, but the theater will have an unspecified number of unclaimed comp tickets made available each day of the show. This being L.A., Jay has reserved a block of seats each night for Hollywood friends (opening night included Michael McKean and Annette O’Toole, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt and husband Michael O’Keefe). The intimate setting is crucial for a performer of Jay’s talents. You have to see it to believe.

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* “Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants,” Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive on the UC Irvine campus. 8 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, through Jan. 9. $40. (949) 854-4646. No one under 17 admitted.


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