Penn Jillette, the taller and more vocal half of the maverick magic duo Penn & Teller, estimates that “way more than half” of the material in their new show, Penn & Teller On Broadway, has never been performed before in this city.
“It must be about two-thirds, right?” Jillette, who recently shed 105 pounds — hitting his goal weight on March 5, his 60th birthday — glances at the still relatively diminutive Teller, seated beside him in a Midtown office shared by three of the show’s four producers.
Teller, 67, who doesn’t use his first name professionally and talks more in person than he does in their act, looks back at his partner. “With about three minutes, I suppose we could figure it out,” he says, deadpan.
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Of one thing the two are certain: The show, their third Broadway production and first New York stint since 2000, began its run at the Marquis Theatre this week and will wrap Aug. 16. A note on the official site warns, “No Extensions! No Kidding!”
Seriously, Penn and Teller are due back at their home base in Las Vegas for performances starting Aug. 22 at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, where they have held court for more than 14 years.
“The great thing about having a theater of your own is that it’s like a laboratory,” says Teller. “We can perform things for audiences over and over again. Touring isn’t a good way to produce new material, because all you’re thinking night after night is, ‘I don’t want to fall off this stage.'”
Though Penn and Teller have been referred to as illusionists, both are skeptical of the term, preferring “tricks” to describe their witty, sometimes spooky gags and sleights of hand.
Jillette figures that “Doug Henning and David Copperfield maybe wanted to use the word illusion because it has more syllables.”
In one classic bit, Jillette reads Casey At the Bat while Teller tries to escape from a straitjacket; in a new bit, Teller simulates a teapot, with Jillette pouring.
Teller points to the level of audience participation in their show, which he says will incorporate about 50 fans during each performance. “Also, magic has a quality of jumping out at you, so that you never sit quite comfortably in your seat.”
Their distinctly irreverent trickery is one of several weapons in Penn and Teller’s entertainment arsenal. They have worked together and individually as authors, producers and actors, and have been regular TV presences both in their own various projects and as guests on other programs. This summer marks the return of their magic competition series Penn & Teller: Fool Us on the CW on Mondays.
Teller has co-directed stage productions of Macbeth and The Tempest; the latter was, he quips, “the first piece of Shakespeare that had ever been produced in Las Vegas.”
Jillette acknowledges, “There are huge differences between New York and Las Vegas,” but disputes the latter’s image as a place of “empty glitter and neon. That’s only a couple of miles on the strip. I’m raising children in Vegas — my son is 9 and my daughter is 10 — and it’s very much like suburban Phoenix.”
He allows, “It’s not New York. New York is my favorite place to be. Regional differences in this country are much less pronounced than they were 30 years ago. Even accents are going away. Dorchester and Alabama are sounding less different with every generation.”
Jillette adds, “It’s happening worldwide. Ever since Elvis. You don’t think it’s Obama that’ll bring ISIS down, do you? It’s Elvis. People want their rock & roll. Or their electronic dance music — same thing.”
Magic, Jillette admits, doesn’t have quite the same profile. “It’s not music, it’s not comedy. And I’m fine with that; I love the fringes of show business. I’m also fine with magic being considered with a great deal of disrespect. Children get into it at around 12…and mostly, they move on. But some keep thinking about it, about how we ascertain truth and decide what’s real. That’s all it takes.”