Going 'Rogue' and Getting 'Racy'

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There is something very liberating about knowing that no one is who they say they are and that nothing is what it seems. If you've ever entered the world of Ricky Jay, either through his books, his radio show on KCRW (where, as a disclaimer, I should say he became an acquaintance) or his stage shows, you are assuredly aware at all times that that you are being misled, misdirected and possibly mesmerized too.

His newest creation is a theater piece titled A Rogue's Gallery, and like his previous stage works, it features elaborate illusions and droll anecdotes about illustrious hustlers from years past. What's new in this piece, currently enjoying a brief run at the Geffen, is both a focus on Mr. Jay's collection of posters, broadsheets and engravings as well as a more freewheeling form.

His earlier stage works, like Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants and On the Stem, were meticulously choreographed affairs, whereas A Rogue's Gallery is seemingly more relaxed and improvised. Jay asks audience members to call out numbers, which refer to a corresponding artifact projected on to a screen. (More than 100 are on display, so every night is a different show.) He might discuss a photograph of someone he's worked with in his long career in show business or a playbill from a P.T. Barnum attraction. It jogs a story or a trick and the evening progresses. If only he had a snifter that could magically pour the whole house a few sips of brandy, the illusion that you were sitting in Mr. Jay's library or living room after dinner would be complete.

This style fits him as smartly as the three-piece suit he wears on stage — Ricky Jay is a magician who's much more than just his act, and new this show (billed, accurately as "an evening of conversation and performance") allows audiences a glimpse at the method behind the magic.

It should be added that A Rogue's Gallery was made in collaboration with David Mamet, who was at the Geffen on Tuesday's opening night — and to use the conventions of that show, this motivates me to segue to another recent stage work directed by Mamet: Race, a four-person drama about black people, white people and red sequins.

Mamet's latest play, Race opened on Broadway earlier this month. It stars James Spader and David Alan Grier as partners in a hotshot law firm with Kerry Washington as their attractive and ambitious associate. It's also has been more less shrugged off by the New York theater establishment.

Race is a rich, head-spinning play with strong performances and I fear it's being neglected in New York because what it says about race in America in the Obama age isn't quite fashionable. At one point, the young black associate asks her white boss, "You think black people are stupid?" To which he responds, "I think all people are stupid. I don't think blacks are exempt..."

Rather than showing that we've solved or moved beyond racism, Mamet seeing to be saying that as capitalists, Americans have smoothly incorporated racism into the marketplace, not as a tool of oppression, but rather as a weapon for persuasion, like the threat of a strike or shareholder revolt.

Despite the trumpeting of a new post-racial era, Mamet's vision of America today is more persuasive than soothing slogans. Race is a substantial piece of writing — and it's also crackerjack entertainment. New York doesn't seem to be paying attention; maybe LA, which has been home to several first-rate Mamet productions of late, will embrace it. After jettisoning another Speed the Plow revival, the Mark Taper Forum might want to consider Race's high-priced hustlers instead.

David Mamet's Race continues on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre; Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery runs at the Geffen Playhouse through January 10.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.