Ricky Jay’s Stem-Winder

If ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are to be believed, conjurers in 3000 B.C. could part seas, summon alligators, and reanimate the decapitated long before cryogenics. Magicians aren’t so powerful these days, but New York still enjoys its illusionists: David Blaine, David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, the affable crew of “Monday Night Magic,” and an eerie fellow named Igor who bases his routine on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. But Ricky Jay outclasses them all.

Equal parts prestidigitator and professor, Jay’s legerdemain is rivaled only by his scholarship, from popular histories of singular performers to esoteric studies of conjuring literature and card magic. His latest show, Ricky Jay: On the Stem (Second Stage), combines both his strengths. “On the stem” refers, of course, to Broadway, that street where three roads meet, and Jay sprinkles his performance with reminiscences and researches of the thieves and thespians who worked it. As a painted panorama of the strip—from the 1850s to the 1940s—unrolls behind him, Jay takes the audience on a stroll of burlesque houses and street gangs, cardsharps and sideshow freaks, flea circuses and Yiddish theaters.

A big-bellied, avuncular figure in natty suits and shiny ties, Jay has a dynamic and relaxed stage presence. He can somberly perform a Bret Harte recitation, then chuckle with unaffected jollity when he finds himself with egg quite literally on his face after a juggling turn goes awry. Yolk-stained mishaps aside, he’s undoubtedly a polymath—as he demonstrates in one routine by solving chess problems, reciting Shakespeare, computing cube roots, and bellowing field hollers of the “Black Betty” variety simultaneously.

Jay might have taken more care, though, to match his demonstrations to his lecture. Often there’s precious little to link the trick with the anecdote that introduces it. He might also have kept himself more tightly focused on the New York milieu. But then the audience might have missed a re-creation of Parisian Robert-Houdin’s justly celebrated orange tree illusion.

The citrus fruits of that act aren’t the only tang in the show. Much of the piquancy comes from Jay’s ability to make magic mysterious again. In linking conjurers to faro bankers, pickpockets, and other members of the demimonde who thrived on sleight of hand and smooth patter, he renders the magic act dangerous and clever. Should his stage career ever founder, Jay could set up as a confidence man with barely a change of costume. He certainly had the confidence of the audience. Just ask that feckless spectator who bought the Brooklyn Bridge. —Alexis Soloski

An Off-the-Wall Communist

Detroit boasts limited charms, but the few it does have are pretty impressive: the Red Wings, the four-story John King used-book warehouse, the MC5 (some might say the White Stripes), and the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The 27-panel fresco, titled Detroit Industry, covers all four walls of the museum’s Garden Court and depicts a churning, throbbing panorama of auto workers, machines, and sultans of business. It’s easily my favorite piece of 20th-century art.

Rivera completed the massive project in 1932. Shortly afterward he moved on to New York, where he’d been commissioned by the Rockefeller family to create a mural inside the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. Rivera began the piece, which he titled Man at the Crossroads Looking With Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future. Work on the mural continued until the big hitch: The Rockefellers discovered that Rivera had surreptitiously inserted a portrait of Lenin into the piece. When they asked him to remove the “offending” image, Rivera refused, writing: “Rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity.” Rockefeller Center obliged and famously trashed the mural, much to the art community’s horror.

In The Murals of Rockefeller Center (TNC), the Irondale Ensemble tries to recapture this traumatic art episode, as well as the larger 1934 scene. In addition to the mural dustup, the play weaves in the exploits of John Dillinger and the travails of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Irondale wants to re-create a cultural moment when politics, art, capitalism, and crime all seemed intimately bound up with one another, and populist heroes ruled the day. Pablo Picasso, George Gershwin, Will Rogers, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge, and Clark Gable, among many others, all pop up in Irondale’s sepia-toned landscape.

Created by the company and directed by Jim Niesen, the piece is decidedly agitprop, but the troupe pulls it off with more ambition and skill than your usual lefty theater outing. Ken Rothchild assembles a clever, metal-scaffolding set; the Walter Thompson trio provides pleasing live accompaniment. While the collisions and collusions of the historical characters in the script stretch credulity, and while some of the cast lean on shrill caricature—John D. Rockefeller Jr. was not a manic buffoon—a number of the actors offer up nicely nuanced performances, especially Josh Bacher as the troubled Lindbergh, Jack Lush as the insouciant Dillinger, and Sven Miller as the semi-revolutionary Rivera. (Except that Miller is much too thin for the role; Rivera’s girth seems one with the scale of his murals.)

Despite my love of Rivera’s work, I confess to an impolitic, grudging respect for the Rockefellers here. Rivera tried to put one over on them, and they busted him on it. What did he expect, trying to paint Communists in a temple to capitalism? Happily we have many of his other works to admire, even if you have to brave Northwest Airlines and Ted Nugent to see them. —Brian Parks