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NEW YORK (AP) _ Master showman or just a showoff? A theater piece or a con man's sideshow?

Those questions pop up when Ricky Jay takes the stage in his latest one-man venture, ``Ricky Jay: On The Stem,'' which opened Thursday at off-Broadway's Second Stage.

A rotund man whose graying beard, piercing eyes and booming voice exude an intimidating cockiness, Jay hardly needs an introduction. He's one of the world's quirkiest and most famous magicians, a sleight-of-hand artist who has parlayed his dexterity with playing cards, and his friendship with writer-director David Mamet, into a career as a stage and film actor (``Heist,'' ``House of Games,'' ``The Spanish Prisoner'') and author.

Jay is also a connoisseur of obscure popular culture _ sideshow performers, con men, gamblers and charlatans _ and holds the famously rare distinction of being able to pierce a watermelon with a playing card hurled from across the room.

In ``On The Stem,'' he employs this wide range of interests and skills to ferry the audience on a whirlwind, rollicking journey through forgotten New York history _ with specific attention paid to the oddball characters who thrived decades ago on Broadway, the city's colorful ``stem.''

Mamet, who directs the piece, keeps the fast-talking Jay mostly on track, allowing for enough humor and intelligence to prevent Jay's natural cockiness from becoming grating. The evening _ performed as a series of vignettes, each punctuated by an illusion or trick _ is aided by beautiful lighting and a rolling mural that serves as Jay's lecturing board.

To both men's credit, ``On The Stem'' turns the magician's craft on its head. Instead of relying on the tricks to entertain, Mamet and Jay place the narrative patter firmly ahead of the trickery: each magical effect arises organically from the storytelling, much as songs arise naturally from the plot of a good musical.

In one of the evening's simplest but best pieces, Jay tells the story of a blind art lover who no longer can see his beloved paintings, and who is unaware that the works, in fact, have been sold off. The ``trick'' _ in which the paintings vanish before the audience's eyes _ is an age-old effect, the secret to which any magic trade store sells for $10 or less. But here Jay transforms it into something artful that at least resembles good theater.

That, of course, is an underlying question. Is this theater?

Well, his fans (and there are plenty, with his current show already sold out for several weeks) would undoubtedly say so.

But Jay isn't for everyone, and there moments when the non-faithful may well ask, ``What's the point?'' In one extended bit, for example, Jay does a mental juggling act that has him alternately calculating cube-roots, calling out chess moves, reciting Shakespeare, and singing.

It's an impressive bit of multitasking but arguably little more than that _ with questionable value as entertainment

The evening's several other vignettes mostly succeed, though some are overlong and miss the mark. Among the best: a ``flea circus'' that features chariot racing and a scene from ``Hamlet,'' a card trick involving a mechanical orange tree, and a clever card-throwing bit.

Beyond the tricks, Jay's relationship with the audience remains delightfully ambiguous _ he toys with and taunts them, and seems to enjoy it. In a piece that opens the second act, he appears with all the glib cunning of a carnival barker, pitching small boxes _ contents unknown _ for $5 a piece. The bit ends with one audience member clearly being swindled _ out of real money. Jay's only apology is that the audience member has paid for some real education: a sucker is born every minute.

What comes through most clearly is Jay's fascination with the colorful characters the piece pays tribute to. Through his furious energy as a performer and estimable skill as a magician, it's a fascination that _ more often than not _ manages to rub off on the audience.