URBANELY decked out in sleek charcoal black and unfailingly polite as he submits to a round of questions in the Geffen Playhouse's pre-show lounge, sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay can't help but exude a certain impish quality.
Ask him to discuss the David Mamet-directed reprise of his one-man show "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" and you might receive this engaging bit of misdirection:
"I'd like to tell you that in St. Louis they booked me 52 hotel rooms," he says by way of describing the title. "There's some thought that story might be real. Some that it might be apocryphal."
Those costars in question are, of course, Jay's infamous playing cards, the ones with which he can impale a watermelon from 10 paces or summon an unholy poker hand. Pick a card? Sure, but he does so with such extraordinary grace and wit that to say he performs card tricks, dear reader, is to miss the point.
"Tricks!" he yelps with genial mock horror. But in some small way, I fear I may have just broken his heart.
A master conjurer, Jay also has the stage persona of a storyteller known for serious erudition, drolly delivered. The show "is absolutely saturated with history but presented in a friendly way," he says. Each bit, which may make reference to a current street hustle or the 15th century poetry of François Villon, is "like a small play," he adds. "They're orchestrated; they do have plots."
Further elucidation about the particulars of his skulduggery does not seem to particularly appeal to him. But he has brought along something that does. "David Mamet gave me this yesterday for my return to the Geffen," he explains, unveiling a bit of early 20th century signage, a simple black-on-yellowed-white handbill from a Pullman car warning passengers to beware the "Card Sharks" and "Con Men" circling among them.
"I love the line 'have started their winter campaign on railroad trains,' " he fairly chortles. "In all my research in hustling I've never heard of a 'winter campaign.' "
Jay enthusiastically collects such ephemera. Like his own act, these items conjure up a world stocked with hustlers, lowlifes, gamblers and cheaters but that is somehow more honest than the one in which we live. And, as in his act, he communicates this passion with a contagious zest.
Beyond the stage, Jay is also a screen actor and film consultant, as well as a scholar. He advised on the Getty's "Devices of Wonder" exhibition and has curated for the Hammer MuseumFrançois Villon. He also created a standing exhibit on decomposing dice for the Museum of Jurassic Technology. What he's done more rarely around these parts in the last decade is take the stage.
For his show's second L.A. run, Jay -- who won an Obie after visiting New York with his 52 assistants -- has requested a return to the Geffen's petite, 98-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.
"The ultimate is the two of us sitting here," he says. "I want to come as close as I can to one-on-one, impromptu experience. It's just flat-out better." As a performer, Jay treats his audience with an almost anachronistic degree of respect.
"You know this is going to sound silly, but I think it is a fairly noble profession to bring wonderment and some pleasure, I really do," he says. "Would you prefer to see a great show of mystery or go to a bad doctor? Which does more to serve us?"
By Mindy Farabee, LA Times Staff Writer
'RICKY JAY AND HIS 52 ASSISTANTS'
WHERE: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Wed.; runs 8 p.m. Wed.-Thu., Sat.-Sun.; 8:30 p.m. Fri.; ends Aug. 26.
INFO: (310) 208-5454; www.geffenplayhouse.com