Albee's Latest, Plus Card Tricks

Two Off-Broadway attractions ponder the imponderable in life and illusion

THREE TALL WOMEN Play by Edward Albee. At the Vineyard Theatre through March 13.

THIS theatrical season, New York seems to be experiencing an Edward Albee blitzkrieg.

The small Signature Theatre Company has devoted its entire season to his plays, including several American premieres, and is currently producing a program of three of his one acts. In addition, the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre is presenting one of his newest full-length plays, ``Three Tall Women.'' It is his most substantial work in years.

It is also at times infuriating and at other times just plain dull. The three tall women are: A (Myra Carter), an elderly woman who no longer has all her faculties; B (Marian Seldes), her middle-aged companion, and C (Jordan Baker), a young lawyer trying to clear up A's affairs. The action consists mainly of their elliptical conversations about life and love, with the elderly woman slipping in and out of coherency.

In the play's second half, the elderly woman is presented fully restored, but because we also see her comatose body (a dummy) lying on the bed with an oxygen mask on her face, it is apparent that all is not well. The idea dawns that the three women are really one and the same, at different stages of life.

This portion of the play, with its Beckett-like situation, resonates with ponderings about the human condition, and offers some of Albee's best dialogue, delivered with conviction by a sterling cast. As the older woman, Myra Carter, a British actress, is absolutely wonderful, detailing her character's emotional and intellectual shifts with utter clarity and humor. It is one of the best performances to be found in New York right now. The steely Marian Seldes offers strong support, and Jordan Baker, making her New York debut, more than holds her own.

One might wish that the playwright had compressed the work into a one act, since it tends to meander, but considering how slight his one acts have been in recent years, perhaps that would have been asking for trouble. As it is, ``Three Tall Women,'' staged in exemplary fashion by Lawrence Sacharow, is a moving examination of one woman's progression from youth to old age to death.

RICKY JAY AND HIS 52 ASSISTANTS At the Second Stage Theatre.

`RICKY JAY and His 52 Assistants'' may be inhabiting the tiny Second Stage Theatre, but you needn't fear for overcrowding. The 52 assistants are, in fact, a deck of playing cards, and Ricky Jay happens to be one of the foremost (or at least the best publicized) illusionists in the field.

Jay, a heavyset, nattily attired man with a beard and creases under his eyes, is not particularly impressive looking, but his skill with cards is. He can do anything with them, it seems. He throws them up in the air and manages to catch only the cards you have previously selected. Soliciting volunteers from the audience, he makes cards appear out of thin air, or in entirely new decks. He would clearly be a desirable bridge partner.

But Jay doesn't just do tricks with cards. He performs prodigious athletic feats with them, including flinging them across the stage with such force that they pierce the outer skin of a watermelon. (Of course, why someone would spend years developing this skill is anyone's guess). And he can throw them boomerang style, also a skill in high demand. He rounds out his act with numerous feats of legerdemain using cups and balls, and offers a detailed demonstration of the urbane art of three-card monte.

Your enjoyment of the show will depend, of course, on your eagerness to experience this specialized art. Apparently, there are enough devotees of Ricky Jay around to completely sell out his eight-week engagement, with an extension probably to be announced shortly.

In true postmodern fashion, the illusionist goes to great lengths to demystify his talents. A noted scholar as well as a practitioner (he is the author of ``Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women''), Jay offers a running commentary while he works, providing historical context and assuring us that he is not an innovator as much as a follower of the sleight-of-hand tradition. It is to Jay's credit that his stories are almost as entertaining as his illusions.

Lending further cachet to the evening is the director, playwright David Mamet, who has been sufficiently enthralled with Ricky Jay to feature him in three of his films.

It's hard to say what exactly Mamet's contribution was, but he has certainly succeeded in making the illusionist's evening go off without a hitch. Kevin Rigdon's cluttered Victorian-parlor set design adds just the right quaint touch.

In an era of magic dominated by the glitzy Las Vegas-style excesses of David Copperfield, Ricky Jay offers a relaxing but still enthralling alternative.

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