BWW Review: PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY, Magic Without The Mystery

There’s an unexpectedly touching moment near the finish of Penn & Teller on Broadway, after the needles are swallowed, the nail gun is fired at someone’s head and the cow dressed as an elephant disappears. Penn Jillette, the large hucksterish spokesman of the duo, tells of being a 17-year-old fascinated with the 10-in-1 sideshows he’d see at county fairs.

He had a special admiration for the performers who would set their mouths aflame with gasoline-dipped torches because there was no trickery involved. They were doing exactly what it looked like they were doing. And after explaining to his audience how human biology helps keep so-called fire eaters from burning themselves, he performs the feat with great respect and affection for those who once inspired him.

When Penn made his 1985 Off-Broadway debut with his diminutive partner Teller, the silent one who displays Harpo Marx-like impishness, the pair avoided describing themselves as magicians, fearful of scaring off the hip theatre-goers their wryly-humored act plays so stridently to. Now they reluctantly accept the title while rejecting the air of mystery that traditionally surrounds it. A running theme throughout their enormously entertaining 17-in-1 program that just hit Broadway for a limited run is that these tricks are really just a set of skills the two of them have mastered through lifetimes of practice.

Penn readily explains that the secrets to their first routine, where an audience member’s cell phone appeared to be smashed, only to have it pop up again, fully functional, inside of a fish, can easily be found through Internet searching.

And while he doesn’t reveal the secrets behind his audience mind-reading routine, he uses the act as an opportunity to assure viewers that any mentalist who claims to be able to communicate with the dead is a charlatan taking advantage of people in a vulnerable state.

As a public service from the two libertarians, they bring out an actual airport metal detector and demonstrate how passengers can easily walk through it carrying a dangerous weapon.

Teller pulls a rabbit out of a top hat, but not before Penn explains the history of this iconic magic trick and why it’s so rarely done. Penn saws showgirl Georgie Bernasek in half, Teller turns gold coins into goldfish, Penn breaks an egg and puts it together again, Teller clips at the shadow of a flower, only to have the actual flower’s leaves fall off and the two of them go nuts with polyester.

There’s a great deal of audience participation, with many patrons brought up on stage. Penn playfully jibes at some of them a bit, but it’s never mean-spirited. Under John Rando’s direction, the evening glides smoothly from bit to bit.

Jazz pianist Mike Jones supplies a bit of atmosphere and entertains early arrivals as they’re invited to go up on stage to inspect one prop and to help insure the validity of another. There are no exposed outlets for charging, but otherwise cell phone usage is encouraged during this pre-show segment.