Penn and Teller have always been theatrical old souls. A thinking person’s magic act, they are masters of the sleight of hand and the bait and switch, equally adept at pulling a rabbit from a hat, a thought from an audience member’s mind and, ghoulishly, a string of needles from a throat. They love educating an audience even as they are shocking them; deconstructing an artful trick, warning us about psychics and their scams, then engaging in ridiculous prop comedy. “Pinteresque,” said Frank Rich, in reviewing their off-Broadway act at the Westside Arts Theater in 1985. Three blocks east and 30 years later, the duo are now back for a limited Broadway run that, with the passing of time, feels more like Beckett than Pinter. Having grown into their older man skins, they bring a balance, an existentialism, and a tad of world-weariness, that Godot might well have admired.
Some 17 feats of prestidigitation are offered up, including a sampling of their classic pieces, a large handful from their long running Las Vegas act, and a couple new tricks for good measure. This means that this is a show with no narrative thread to speak of – this ain’t no Cirque du Soleil. Instead, we are presented with a Vegas-style all you can eat buffet. And if not every trick is fresh (one decidedly smells of fish), you are assured that there will be plenty of items to your liking and you will leave feeling full and satisfied.
Sometimes working together, other times solo, it is usually the seemingly least complicated bits that are the most awesome, though they are never afraid to go heavy on the fake blood and guts when needed. The always-silent Teller performs several of his best-known routines and, because he is still baby-faced at age 67, and because his voice was never part of the deception, they all still hum with a hushed intensity. Whether coaxing a ball through a hoop without touching it, cutting petals from a flower by manipulating its shadow, or unleashing an endless stream of coins from his rolled up sleeves, his elegant simplicity combined with his high comic expressions can still bring on the goose bumps.
Penn, at 60, is a bit worse for wear, and that makes things more interesting. Bluster has always been part and parcel of his craft, so now, if his voice seems raspy and he perhaps projects a loss of conviction behind his libertarian sentiments, does that mean he really will slip up when performing with a pressurized nail gun or, when he cuts the showgirl (Georgie Bernasek) in half, might that circular saw cut an inch or three too deep? Well, the joke’s on us, of course, and any worries we have are cast aside in the beauty of his well-polished fire eating routine, calmly setting his tongue ablaze as Teller lights a cigarette from off the flame.
Their less successful moments are more a result of old props than old fingers. At one point, Teller wanders up from the audience in a ridiculous disguise featuring a very tired wig and beard. But it turns out we were really supposed to have believed it was an audience member. Similarly, much of the show prepares us to see a live cow take the stage. The thing that shows up might have blinking eyes and a swinging tail, but it is decidedly made more of screws than of moos.
Perhaps because their run comes on the heels of the Grateful Dead farewell concerts, or perhaps because the musty Marquis Theatre has not aged nearly as well as its guests, there is a certain finality to the proceedings, augmented by the fine, bluesy jazz interludes from their long time pianist, Mike Jones. But, this too, is illusion. Come mid-August, Penn and Teller will be back in Vegas for the unforeseeable future. East Coast magic fans – old, young, or in between – should get their tickets now, before they vanish.