If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like. Indeed, the sort of thing you might eat up with a spoon.
We’re talking here about Penn and Teller on Broadway. The venerable duo who’ve much more than dabbled in magic tricks while wearing matching three-piece suits (unlike no one in their audiences) for just about 40 years have landed on the Great White Way with what amounts to a 95-minute Best of show at the Marquis Theater, directed by John (On the Town) Rando on a dandy Daniel Conway set, running until Aug. 16.
They’ve added three new illusions, as Penn Jillette, the one who talks — volubly — confides. One is to vanish an elephant, which happens to be a cow they’ve dressed up and insist was not harmed in any way during the procedure. (How do can they be sure Bessie wasn’t humiliated by wearing an elephant’s trunk?)
They’re also sawing a woman (Georgie Bernasek) in half, which seems to be a first for them. Unlike most sleight-of-hand artistes, they transform this stunt into a kind of Grand Guignol turn that reaps laughs of the horrified but amused variety. Rest assured, Bernasek returns later in yet another skimpy costume to assist the men.
Since I’m not conversant with the entire Penn and Teller repertoire, I can’t say whether the saw business is an entirely new number in their line-up of 17 tricks, stunts and illusions. Those I may have witnessed previously in their Off-Broadway or television appearances — I’ve never seen them in Las Vegas — I don’t recall.
For instance, Jillette chats about pulling a rabbit out of a hat, saying that while it’s a magician’s cliché, few have ever seen it done (I have, haven’t you?). At that point, he and Teller indulge in the trick but reveal that the first rabbit they produce is manipulated and stuffed. Is this a staple of their shtick? Don’t ask me.
I do appreciate their showing us that little stuffed figure, though. It gives away one magician’s trick, and giving gimmicks away is part of the Penn and Teller trick shtick. While Teller remains, as always, silent, Jillette insists that there’s no such thing as magic, no such thing as psychic powers. A skeptic of skeptics, he plugs away at magic being no more than a series of lies. Though Teller keeps his trap shut throughout — except to utter the word “Sure” during one sequence — he does provide a program note reiterating the team’s intentions.
So while they pooh-pooh any actual magic occuring as Teller appears to swallows a large number of small needles and Jillette seems to eat and digest fire, they never completely give away how they do whatever it is they do.
Check that. A first maneuver involving a patron and his cellphone — belonging to affable Jim at the performance I attended — they do apparently give away: Jim will receive a video laying out the ploy for his edification.
At another point, Jillette launches a restrained tirade against spectators who carry on about having figured out how tricks are done. He obviously finds these blabbermouths cynical and arrogant and has no time for them.
He wouldn’t find me in that category, but he might object to my reaction, which runs in the opposite direction. I watch not only Penn and Teller but all magicians with no interest in how they pull off their effects. I assume it’s all legerdemain, all misdirection, all smoke and mirrors, all easily explainable with some dematerialization (what do I know?) thrown in.
But having witnessed their hijinks, I think, So what? I think, That was clever enough, but not what rocks my boat. I also think of what John Boswell quoted Samuel Johnson as saying:
Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.
Penn and Teller do it well, but I still consider it surprising to be done at all. I still like finding my magic elsewhere.
Which is why I say that if you like this sort of thing, et cetera. And believe me, Penn and Teller fans like — love — this sort of thing. They love it so much that they can’t wait to participate in it. Both of them — Jillette vocally, Teller silently — constantly encourage audience participation.
It starts right from the get-go. On entering, ticket holders are encouraged by jazz pianist Mike Jones from his upright piano stage left to come up on the stage and put their name in an envelope and then examine a box. The envelope comes into play later. The box comes into play sooner in a way meant to amaze those assembled. (Again, I wasn’t amazed, but that’s me.)
People were always raising their hands. For the cellphone bit, their held up their cellphones, panting to be chosen. What passed through my mind? Now I know why something told me to leave my cellphone at home.
But forget this jaded, even curmudgeonly, reviewer’s response. Six-foot-seven Penn and Buster-Keaton-small Teller are surpassingly good at what they do, and if what they do is the kind of thing you — well, you know And if it isn’t that kind of thing, watch a TCM rerun of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. There’s magic for you.