You'll believe a card can fly

Robert Butler prepares to be tricked by Ricky Jay. At pounds 75 a seat, he can hardly wait
Two months ago I hadn't heard of him, and now I've joined the unseemly scramble for tickets. This late catching up with the phenomenon that is Ricky Jay began around Easter time. Over dinner a friend was talking about someone he'd known at Cornell University who does amazing things with cards. This guy is a sleight-of-hand artist or - here comes the fancy word - a prestidigitator. Another friend at the table said he hadn't heard of this particular guy but he knew exactly what he did. There was only one trick involved. To prove it, he got hold of a pack of cards and made us pick the card he wanted. The first friend was too polite to spoil the fun. He only murmured that this Ricky guy did a bit more than that.

A week later, by way of gently underlining the point, he sent me an article. It was a 17-page profile in the New Yorker from six years ago. From the full-page photo that opened the piece Jay appeared as a brooding, bearded, bear-like figure with a high forehead and menacing eyes. The piece said Jay could make a card fly through the air at 90 miles an hour and across a distance of 190 feet. He could hurl a card at an upright pencil and slice it in half. He could propel 52 cards towards a bottle of wine and land the one with the number you were thinking of inside the bottle. And that's only the showy stuff.

Jay is reputed to be one of the half-dozen best card-handlers in the world. When it comes to shuffling, he's the Nureyev of the green baize table. He treats his cards as if they were 52 living, breathing, individual creatures. The trick is, I reckon, that at any given moment he knows where all 52 of them are. Jay went to five universities over 10 years and never progressed beyond the rank of freshman. Yet he is a formidable historian and the leading authority on sleight-of-hand techniques.

This month his stage show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, plays for 20 performances only at the Old Vic in London. It is directed by America's leading playwright, David Mamet. Book now. In New York some people tried to buy a ticket for every night. And the movie industry, in particular, loves him. Steve Martin, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and Edward Norton are all fans, drawn towards this master of the art of illusion - which is, of course, another way of describing their own craft. Only 160 seats are available on each night of the London run, and the producer tells me that Charles Saatchi wants to buy up a whole evening. Thanks Charlie: that cuts it down to 19.

A former carnival barker, Wall Street accountant, barman and professional gambler, Jay has toured as an opening act with Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris and Herbie Hancock. He is a connoisseur, curator and bibliomaniac who spends most of his income on old books. As an actor, he has appeared in three Mamet films: as a confidence man in House of Games, as a gangster in Things Change, and as an Israeli terrorist in Homicide. He was also in Boogie Nights and the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. For David Mamet, he is "the man"; he is "one of the world's great people"; he is "my hero".

Ricky Jay has been performing in public since he was four, and he was on TV - the youngest magician ever - at the age seven. His Cornell contemporary Richard Gutman, author of a book called American Diner, remembers the two of them sharing a fascination for history and collecting. He also thinks they had the longest hair on the campus. Not easy in 1968. "Ricky was always practising his sleight-of-hand or rolling a quarter across his knuckles. He always had a deck of cards. At one point, the two of us were heading to a diner for breakfast when Ricky returned to the house to grab a deck of cards. He said he 'felt naked without them'."

A few days after I had received the 17-page article, an parcel arrived from Gutman. It was a book by Ricky Jay called Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers: Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc etc etc etc. On the inside page Rolling Stone magazine described Jay as "the country's leading weirdologist". I thought the book was going to be a freak show. But in fact, it's an amazing catalogue of human ingenuity, resourcefulness, courage and technical accomplishment.

The illustrations alone are worth the $20. You'll learn about the man who dropped 75 feet with his head in a hangman's noose; or the woman with no hands or feet or legs who became a miniature portraitist; or the man who extinguished candles on stage by farting; or the woman who put boiling lead in her mouth; or "the human aquarium" - the man who swallowed frogs.

The Old Vic's managing director, Sally Greene, has been trying to get Ricky Jay over to London for three years. When she first went to see him at the Second Stage theatre, off-Broadway, she recalls: "There was a woman hanging on to the bars of the box office and screaming abuse. She was hurling money at the box-office staff and trying to bribe them for a ticket. As a producer, I thought, ding-dong-ding-dong, there's something going on here."

Greene got Jay to come over to London and took him round in the back of a taxi showing him theatre after theatre: the Almeida, the Pit, Hampstead, the Royal Court. "Nowhere could I find a place he liked." Ricky Jay has to be close to people. He needs a very small stage. The artistic consultant at the Old Vic is Stephen Daldry, who's never been slow when it comes to rearranging the insides of a venue. He suggested the Old Vic itself, which usually seats 1,100. "Stephen said, we've got to get this bloody guy over now. Why don't we put him on stage with the audience?"

The first thing the audience will notice when they walk into this specially created theatre-within-a-theatre is the temperature. The air-conditioning will be "arctic," I'm told. "There shouldn't be one drop of perspiration on his hands," says Greene. "He's worried here because it's a damp climate." If you watch a tape of Ricky Jay, there's a special noise you hear as he brushes the palms of his hands. They could be two sheets of paper. Greene adds, "I suggest you wear more than a T-shirt."

The run is making West End history by charging the highest ticket price ever for a show without an aria. There'll be a front row of Pullman seats for pounds 75 each. If it's anything like the tape I saw, it'll be a bargain. The red curtains part, Jay appears at the back in a grey double-breasted suit with the sleeves tucked up towards his elbows. This broad, burly figure walks towards a card table, centre stage. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce my 52 assistants."

He fans out a deck of cards and invites us to consider their varying characters. His style is part-lecture, part-demonstration, part-showbiz. Hunched over the table, his eyes darting up to the audience, he places the four queens in four separate piles with three other cards over them. His narrative is hip, erudite and arcane. Can these aristocrats escape the vulgar masses? Minutes later, as he finishes his story he shows that the four queens have left their separate areas of the table and joined together in a single aristocratic pile. The audience gasps at the purity, simplicity and grace of his sleight-of-hand.

So Sally, if you have a spare ticket, then I don't mind paying. And my neighbour's keen to go.

And so are his sons. And his wife.

'Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants': Old Vic, SE1 (0171 494 5372), 22 June to 17 July.

Robert Butler on theatre: page 6