The Great Deceiver
PBS American Masters series profiles uncoventional magician Ricky Jay in manner befitting its subject
By Michael Shashoua / Jester editor-in-chief
The PBS American Masters special “Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice,” debuting Friday, January 23, takes a different tack than previous specials in the series profiling comedy giants such as Johnny Carson (see review, 5/12/12) and Mel Brooks (see review, 5/18/13). Those editions were more straightforward documentaries tracking the lives and careers of their subjects.
“Deceptive Practice,” telling the story of respected magician and actor Ricky Jay (a regular in David Mamet’s films and a recognizable character in other recent classics such as “Boogie Nights”) through a combination of interviews with Jay, archival clips, interviews with collaborators and colleagues, and most unusually, a survey of the history of magic performances and legendary early 20th century magicians who influenced and in some cases personally mentored Jay.
Magic can be both comedic and dramatic in theatrical performance. Jay has done a few Broadway shows that blend both with magic and show business history, notably “On The Stem,” which I saw about eight years ago. “Deceptive Practice” takes a similar approach. As a performer, Jay is steeped in the history of magic as much as Penn & Teller (or maybe more so), and brings that forward in his performances more than they do. Jay does so both to entertain and educate. Ricky Jay’s approach is different, however, from the one Jay Johnson takes with ventriloquism (see review, 12/7/14), using explanations of the art form’s history to make himself more relatable and tie himself to the history.
In “Deceptive Practice,” Ricky Jay both explains the influence of respected magicians Charles Miller and Dai Vernon on him, and their significance and influence in the development of magic performances. In co-directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s documentary portrayal of Jay as a “Master,” his biographical arc is shown a bit differently, through the fortunate survival of performance clips of Jay as a child performing magic on television in the 1950s under his real name, Ricky Potash, with narration by Dick Cavett. The documentary returns to Jay as a young adult in the late 1960s, now bearded and with long hair, beginning to make a name for himself as an adult performer who was considered one of magic’s hot “wunderkinds” at the time.
The variety of documentary techniques used in this one-hour special pack quite a lot of information and convey great appreciation for their subject. (Jay even gives a dramatic reading of a magic-themed tribute poem Shel Silverstein wrote for him). Aside from the wealth of information and context in “Deceptive Practice,” the variety of forms and segments that comprise the special mirror Jay’s versatility as a magician, actor, theatrical performer and author.
And if you were to watch only one segment out of the whole special, there is a clip about 20 minutes in from a 1970s talk show in which Steve Martin attempts to disrupt one of Jay’s card tricks by folding one of the cards and Jay turns the tables on him in a way that is truly priceless.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua