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The trick of being Ricky Jay

Magician has a sharp hand, a sharp mind, and a bit of ham

''There's no pattern to [my] inspiration. It could be a Japanese film, a poker tournament, looking at someone on the street who seems to disappear, a Dylan song,'' says Ricky Jay. ''There's no pattern to [my] inspiration. It could be a Japanese film, a poker tournament, looking at someone on the street who seems to disappear, a Dylan song,'' says Ricky Jay.
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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Google Ricky Jay and you'll find fistfuls of video clips: Jay delivering a tutorial on dealing from the bottom of the deck, Jay beheading plastic ducks with flying playing cards, Jay performing his version of the shell game. That last clip is a seven-minute history lesson disguised as sleight of hand, and it offers a glimpse of what Jay isn't - a garden-variety magician.

Yes, he's widely considered the finest card handler on the planet. Jay is also an actor, best known for roles in his close friend David Mamet's films. He's a collector and an author, although the uninitiated may have missed Jay's books on dice, broadsides (vintage printed advertisements), and history's most unusual entertainers. A scholar in his field - whatever that is - Jay writes and lectures frequently on cheating, confidence games, and literature about conjuring. His day job, as it were, is running a consulting firm called Deceptive Practices, which provides (and I quote) arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.

Ricky Jay is a Renaissance man from the cultural fringe. But what, exactly, is his skill set?

"I suppose it's some combination of physical dexterity and an inquiring mind and wonderful teachers and flair bordering on being a ham," he says from his Los Angeles home. "Beyond that it's hard to tell. I leave that up to your skill set."

Touché, Ricky Jay. Let's just say that in these days of digital shock and computerized awe, Jay dazzles us the old-fashioned way: with his hands. He last appeared in Boston eight years ago in the Mamet-directed off-Broadway hit "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants." On Friday Jay brings his new theatrical work, "A Rogue's Gallery: An Evening of Conversation and Performance," to the Somerville Theatre, and the show marks a number of firsts for Jay - among them, serious audience participation and the introduction of materials from his personal collections (show bills of singing mice; posters of Houdini imitators; images of Jay's grandfather, an amateur magician who introduced Jay to the craft). The way audience members interact with those materials will determine the direction of the performance.

No tricks have been recycled for "A Rogue's Gallery," which is largely improvised, and four decades into a career, that's no small feat. The muse is still with Jay, 60, mysterious as ever.

"There's no pattern to inspiration," Jay says. "It could be a Japanese film, a poker tournament, looking at someone on the street who seems to disappear, a Dylan song." (In one of Jay's quirkier appearances, he and Bob Dylan, a casual acquaintance, teamed up on a hustle in the promotional clip for Dylan's 2001 album, "Love and Theft.") "It's how you approach it that matters," Jay says, "and that means diligence and practice and surrounding yourself with intelligent people."

There are two such people with whom Jay's professional life has for many years been inextricably linked: Mamet, who shares Jay's fascination with deception (and was the best man at his wedding), and Michael Weber, a fellow magician who cofounded Deceptive Practices with Jay two decades ago. Both Jay and Weber describe the work of Deceptive Practices, somewhat obliquely, as problem solving; their clients are from the world of film, television, and theater. Among the pair's many creations is the wheelchair used by Gary Sinise's amputee character in "Forrest Gump," the puzzle locket in "The Illusionist," and a technique to make an actor vanish atop a 12-foot ladder made of light in the Broadway production of "Angels in America." They're also in-demand script consultants on such subjects as gambling, swindling, mind reading, seances, and medical quackery.

Weber describes his partner's gift as "an alchemical blend of passion, intellect, and humor, and I say alchemical because I know many people who have modeled some aspect of their lives on his and it doesn't produce the same result.

"The real mark of an artist is not becoming known as the finest exponent of their art," Weber says. "It's when the only way to describe what they do is to name them."

Ricky Jay was born in 1948 in Brooklyn. He met the great magicians of the day at his grandfather's house, and he performed his first public trick at age 4, multiplying coffee creamer packets at a backyard barbecue for the Society of American Magicians. As an adolescent, Jay spent his weekends in Manhattan, frequenting Al Flosso's magic shop and the cafeteria in the Wurlitzer building, a hangout for magicians. Jay says magic was always something he did but not what he thought of as the stuff of a career. He considered journalism, and then advertising, and at one point enrolled in the School of Hotel Management at Cornell. For a year in the 1970s Jay lived in Boston, not far from the Somerville Theatre, but by then he was on the road almost constantly, as opening act for the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris, and Herbie Hancock.

In the decades since, living in Los Angeles, Jay has devoted himself not only to the practice but to the study of his art. When it comes to deception, he notes, looking at history is like peering into a mirror.

"There's this incredible cyclical nature to things. Look at what's going on in the financial world, with the Ponzi scheme. People," Jay says, "respond to and are deceived by the same things they were a hundred years ago."

While he freely quotes his gurus and nods to his mentors, Jay is himself little inclined to engage the next generation of practitioners. "I'm not a particularly good mixer on that level," he says. "If I can answer a question I try my best."

That doesn't stop magician David Blaine from calling Jay his greatest teacher. "As a youngster I saved up all my money for a ticket to see 'Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,' says Blaine. "It gave me a very serious, entirely different respect for magic. I can't think of anybody else alive or historically that was so impactful on so many levels. He really did inspire most of my take on magic. "

Once upon a time, and for many, many years, Jay had cards in his hands 10 hours a day. Now, he says, he appreciates the benefits of short, concentrated periods of practice. And the preparations for "A Rogue's Gallery" require more mental gymnastics than physical dexterity. Naturally, he declines to elaborate.

That doesn't mean Jay isn't invested in his hands. He avoids hot ovens and no longer practices martial arts. The most horrifying experience of his life occurred on the set of the Dylan video.

"They were shooting Bob and then the camera turned to film me, and a grip went to adjust a light. He didn't have his screwdriver secured, and it fell down about 15 feet and landed on my pinkie. The place went silent. Nobody knows how I survived without injury. And the grip," Jay recalls, "he just vanished."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@ globe.com.

RICKY JAY'S "A Rogue's Gallery: An Evening of Conversation and Performance"

At Somerville Theatre on Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$110 at 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.