Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants

Steppenwolf Studio Theater

Ricky Jay’s evening of card tricks is a lot of fun. In fact, let’s make this absolutely clear at the very beginning, it’s a hoot! a triumph! two thumbs up! a nonstop magical mystery tour! utterly absorbing! an amazing! fantastic! incredible! not to be missed! display of blah! blah! blah! And it’s a sham. Or rather a confidence game. More exactly, an elaborate series of confidence games meant to make the audience think they’re getting something special, something worth the 40 bucks or so Steppenwolf is charging for a seat.

Of course, confidence games are essential to popular entertainment today. Publicists and artists work together to get the media excited about this or that performer or project. And we in turn fall all over each other writing puffy features about whoever we think will be hot next week or next month or three months from now. And consumers either believe us, in which case Andie MacDowell is suddenly an actress, Chicago is the next Seattle, and Newt Gingrich is really president. Or they don’t. And film studios lose piles of money on Last Action Hero or Richie Rich.

Ricky Jay is a particularly fascinating case because he’s built an entire show around deceit: three-card monte, crooked poker, and the many elaborate ways a card can be made to show up when a card shark wants it to. Confidence is essential to his art. When he says, for example, that he’s using an ordinary deck of cards, we must trust him. I must believe that the deck he has is not much different from the sealed deck next to my keyboard, recently purchased from Walgreen’s. It’s a naive thought, as it turns out–as the audience for an early dress rehearsal discovered when Jay somehow slipped up and had to have a different “ordinary deck” delivered to him from backstage.

Of course, the magician as confidence man is a little obvious, trivial, even slightly tiresome. So like every good postmodern artist, Jay constantly makes use of the self-reflexive cliche in his act, showing us things card sharks would do, fooling us for applause with tricks mountebanks would perform for money. Jay’s twist is that he pretends he’s actually teaching us how to watch out for crooked dealers as he’s dealing a dirty hand. In fact, the tricks are performed so quickly, we barely have time to be impressed with Jay’s skill before he moves on to the next one.

Still, that’s just the first level of the game: Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants is ringed by several other, more sophisticated confidence games–David Mamet Monte, the “New York, New York” game, and our own floating crap game, Steppenwolf Theatre.

David Mamet Monte goes like this: anyone David Mamet likes is a fuckin’ genius, anything that comes out of David Mamet is ice cream. Hence all the praise for his uninspired adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (used in Louis Malle’s snooze of a film, Vanya on 42nd Street). What exactly Mamet did as director of Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants is not clear. Most magicians don’t have directors, most magic acts are a little unfocused. And Jay is more focused than most. Perhaps Mamet deserves some credit for the disciplined way Jay both seems spontaneous and retains perfect control over his cards.

What Mamet did not do is write Jay’s material; Jay did that himself, the program makes this quite clear. Yet more than one person has told me they’re going to see this show because “they love David Mamet’s work,” meaning Mamet’s language. Though Jay peppers his show with lots of 19th-century doggerel, using the same kind of colorful street talk Mamet also draws on, Jay doesn’t speak like a Mamet character or like Mamet himself. He speaks in a more modern, relaxed version of the puffed-up faux scholarly style of sideshow barkers and W.C. Fields imitators. The same style, more or less, he uses in his books about famous and infamous magicians and sideshow acts (Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women). But interestingly, Jay’s performance style–telling long stories about arcane, vaguely metaphysical subjects, then surprising his lulled audience with a trick–is not unlike the technique used by such classic Mamet characters as Roma in Glengarry, Glen Ross, who makes long-winded philosophical speeches as a way of hypnotizing potential customers.

What Mamet is doing on the program, I suspect, is spreading his cloak of artistic invulnerability over Ricky Jay, inviting us to have confidence in him and his show, which had phenomenal success in New York a season ago. Significantly, when Mark Singer wrote a long feature about Ricky Jay in the New Yorker two years ago, he began with a story Mamet told him about the magician.

Whatever, Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants was a hit in New York. Which leads us to confidence game number two: if it’s a hit in New York, it must be good and so it’ll be a hit everywhere else–though New Yorkers really have no idea what will play elsewhere, despite the lyrics to “New York, New York.” But following the habits established when Broadway was the center of creativity and all road shows came from NYC, Chicago theater insists on believing the confidence men in New York who whisper, “Psssst, want to buy a hit show?”

Naturally Steppenwolf, which made its reputation moving well-received Chicago shows to off-Broadway spaces and, more recently, lost a lot of money moving a very flawed show to Broadway, would buy into New York’s confidence game and move Ricky Jay to Chicago, into the Steppenwolf confidence game. You’d think that after several seasons’ worth of artistic disasters (A Clockwork Orange, The Road to Nirvana, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice), Steppenwolf wouldn’t have much artistic capital left. But you’d be wrong. Because this past year has been great for Steppenwolf’s confidence–Gary Sinise really smoked in Forrest Gump, and that adds to Steppenwolf’s rep here at home. After all, who knows when you might catch tomorrow’s Gary Sinise at Steppenwolf? (Probably working as a volunteer usher because he can’t afford the $40 ticket.) So an aura of high art pervades everything Steppenwolf does.

Moreover, Ricky Jay’s one-man show is being performed in Steppenwolf’s studio space (recently remodeled to be more “intimate” by removing those awful, comfortable theater seats and cramming in more of the wonderful, smaller, armless chairs you see at wedding receptions). Theater companies have traditionally reserved their black-box theaters for new, potentially unpopular material by untried artists. (Gregory Mosher, for example, used Goodman’s smaller second stage in the 70s to try out work by David Mamet.) Not Steppenwolf. Always a company to thumb their nose at tradition, the defanged Steppenpuppies have so far used their space either as an income generator (renting it to smaller organizations willing to take a risk–Lookingglass or Performing Arts Chicago) or, when they have deigned to do a production themselves, tried out such people as the wild and crazy millionaire Steve Martin, whose inept one-act, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, only played as if it had been written by a fledgling artist.

Still, Ricky Jay’s show is being treated as a high-art event. In fact, because it’s art with a capital A, no one under 18 will be admitted. I have a friend whose magic-loving, desperately ill 11-year-old boy was denied a ticket to the show because it’s so high art. And what does Ricky Jay, the artist, do? Card tricks. In a beautiful set made to look like someone’s game-filled drawing room. Does Ricky Jay tackle any difficult issues in his show, the way other performers do in rougher, cheaper, poorer venues around the city? Does he explore any interesting questions about performance and theater, or about the dividing line between nightclub magicians and guys who play three-card monte in Times Square? Nope. Nope. Nope.

He does answer simpler, more practical questions. Like, can you build a show around a series of card tricks? Can you keep an audience dazzled for 90 minutes? The answer to both questions is yes, barely, but only if you have your audience’s confidence and stack the deck.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.