PENN & Teller made illusions and sleights of hand cool years before the likes of David Copperfield made them flashy.
For 40 years now, the pair have been the instantly recognizable face of magic in America: The tall, chatty one is Penn Jillette; the short, silent one just goes by Teller. And now they’ve taken a break from their Vegas residency — 14 years and counting — for their first New York appearance since 2000.
And, save for some updates — a trick with a cellphone, a newly slimmed-down Penn — the act’s vibe feels largely unchanged from back then.
Being a greatest-hits package of sorts, the show is a perfect intro for Penn & Teller newbies, reaching back to one of Teller’s oldest routines — where he swallows 100 needles and then some thread, before regurgitating the lot with all the needles threaded. It’s fast, simple and to the point, like the stunt — new to them — in which the duo pull a live rabbit out of a hat.
But several numbers lack that directness and seem to be made up of 90 percent Penn patter.
Now, we all know that a big part of magic consists of distracting the audience, but Penn can get carried away, as if taken off course by the sound of his own voice. In a routine involving a TSA metal detector similar to the ones used in airports, he launches into libertarian speechifying about government interference. How about making the lecture disappear?
The seams also show more than you’d expect, especially in Teller’s underwhelming sleight-of-hand moves.
Dressed in natty pinstripe suits, the duo are welcoming hosts to the many audience members who end up onstage. Penn is friendly with an edge, as if always just barely refraining from poking fun at the volunteer help.
His love for the traveling carnies and freaks of yore is endearing, as is his interest in the history and even ethics of magic. Penn rails against con artists claiming to be mentalists, for instance — not a surprise from a guy who used to co-host a TV show called “Bulls - - t!”
He also reveals the technique for eating fire, and the side effects of ingesting lighter fluid. The best part is that when he eventually does the trick, knowing how it works doesn’t matter: It’s still a wondrous sight.