Let There Be Sleight
Bamboozles of the Barbary Coast. Written and performed by Tom Nixon. At the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), on an open run. Call 646-0984.

Bamboozles of the Barbary Coast begins the moment you call for tickets. "This is the best thing I've done," trumpets Tom Nixon, the creator of this quirky cocktail of history, magic, and humor. "I'm so excited about it, I wish I could see it myself!" At the door, the ticket-taker chimes in, "It's a great show. I know you'll enjoy it." Before the curtain, Nixon mingles in the lounge doing magic tricks, flaunting his bravura with game-show vigor. On the night I went, the young hipster audience seemed not to know how to react to this relentlessly boisterous, unflappably intimate performer; we're used to actors who remain unseen (in dignity or dread) until the lights go down and the fourth wall is raised.

Indeed, Tom Nixon hails from a breed rarely seen on Bay Area stages: He's a professional entertainer. As well-oiled as a Vegas showgirl and persuasive as a hustler, Nixon succeeds in getting in your face in a way so many avant-garde performance artists have failed. Tempering the craft of deception with a disarming, sweaty vulnerability, he is an unnerving performer to behold.

Sometimes it seems like his material is straightforward enough. He tells the stories of San Francisco's bad old days, and the legacy of his great-great-grandfather, an infamous San Francisco con man known as the Professor. He cites dates, places, and sources from the San Francisco Historical Society. He also reveals the secret kinship of con artistry and sleight-of-hand magic, an art he has been studying for 39 years. But after witnessing just how good a trickster he is, you start to wonder about the claims he's making. Did he really have a con artist for a great-great-grandfather? Has he really been offered $50,000 a month to deal high-stakes card games in Vegas? Is the baseball bat he wields really the same one that 19th-century proto-masochist Oofty Goofty offered citizens to beat him?

Although the two-hour show (whose $58 ticket is steep even taking into account the complimentary truffles and drinks) has little narrative, few characters, and a lot of card tricks, Nixon still manages to infuse the evening with dramatic tension. We learn in this most skeptical of times that we're hopelessly gullible, even eager to be deceived. Using participation, casual conversation, and relentless eye contact, he works his con-artistry on the audience -- gradually winning us over with his confidence. And by the end of the show, only one truth remains self-evident: Nixon loves what he's doing and expects you to love it too.

-- Carol Lloyd

Slip 'n' Slide
It's a Slippery Slope. Written and performed by Spalding Gray. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), Dec. 30-Jan. 4. Call 749-2228.

Spalding Gray is lucky. With a dose of talent and one or two subtle observations ("Memory, for all of us, is the first creative act"), he's managed to make a career out of dramatizing his own neuroses. His series of one-man shows all look the same -- just a childish man with grayed flamboyant hair, sitting behind a desk with a notebook and a microphone -- and they're increasingly about a single topic, Spalding Gray's Life. Maybe his best show was Swimming to Cambodia, which mixed biting politics with funny personal material, but lately he's lapsed back into the strictly personal monologues he started with, a tendency that unhinged his last show, Gray's Anatomy, which was about Spalding Gray's Manic Refusal to Accept the Fact That One of His Eyes Has Gone Blind. Going blind is surely traumatic, but not always interesting to the rest of us. So it was good to see him take on a heavier subject with It's a Slippery Slope, his current show, which the American Conservatory Theater hosted over New Year's.

Slippery Slope was about death. It covered Gray's 52nd birthday and the midlife crisis that came with it. ("Midlife is 36," he said, "not 52, but at 52 you realize that you have lived longer than you're going to live; you see the end of the plank.") Also, Gray's mother committed suicide at age 52, and this grim reflection set off a chain reaction of philosophy and bad behavior that made, along with a series of hilarious ski lessons, a weirdly involving story. It was weird because the audience wanted to laugh even when Gray pulled his punch lines and talked about his mother instead, or about his own death, or about the not-very-admirable way he left his ex-girlfriend, Renee, only after a lover of his named Kathy ignored his demands for an abortion and had a baby that belonged to him. It was funny that Gray suddenly found himself in the middle of a family, almost against his will, but the stirring point was that his own unexpected weakness in the face of death is what made him act like a jerk.

His riffs about learning to ski were polished and evocative: Using philosophical reflections to evoke the rhythm of riding up a ski lift, and undercutting them with a wild trip down the slope, is the kind of word-craft that Gray has been honing for years. Some of the philosophy was pretentious, and so were some of his one-liners ("I gave myself a high-five"), but his wild runs of language were expert and fun. When he talked about his relationships with Kathy and Renee, though, he seemed to grope for words; you felt that Gray had ventured into some thorny private place in full view of an audience, without rehearsing. For a man who knows how to make people laugh to retreat from that sometimes-defensive habit and work out a new part of his personal history while trying to stay halfway pertinent felt risky, tough, and to me this was the best part of the show.

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