Though it’s been four decades since they first teamed up, Penn and Teller are looking terribly of-the-moment these days. Never mind that their latest entertaining exercise in populist hocus-pocus — “Penn & Teller on Broadway,” which opened on Sunday night at the Marquis Theater — includes some of the oldest tricks in any conjurer’s book, including the extraction of a rabbit from a top hat and sawing a woman in half.
These are the magicians, after all, who for years have been telling us not to believe in the magic they do. How appropriate that credo feels in the early 21st century, when everybody seems to be in on the joke that everybody else is a fake.
It’s hard to hear a pop star’s hit record now without thinking of the technology that smoothed and sweetened the vocals, or to listen to a politician without imagining a team of speechwriters, or to watch special effects in an action movie without wondering about green screens. As much as we may be amused or even enthralled by such spectacles, it’s become a point of honor to know that they’re only illusions.
Or, to use the delicate language of Penn and Teller, it’s all BS, a term that the audience at the Marquis yells out (in its unabbreviated form) on a cue from Penn (the stage name of Penn Jillette; Teller is always just Teller, for professional purposes). “Penn and Teller: BS” was the title of this team’s long-running series on Showtime, devoted to the exposure of professional frauds.
“BS” is presumably the implicit subtitle for their show in Las Vegas, where they have been in residence at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino for 14 years. And it could also be appended to their latest Broadway outing, which is cunningly directed by John Rando, while appearing to not have been directed at all.
At the end of this production, Penn (it’s always Penn speaking, since Teller is mute onstage) reminds us that the biggest illusion of all is that this is only a two-man show. (The team behind it includes Daniel Conway, who did the newfangled, old-timey set; Jeff Croiter, the lighting designer; the jazz pianist Mike Jones; the bespangled Georgie Bernasek, as she who is sawed; and Nathan Santucci as “Director of Covert Activities.”)
Yet despite being in the anonymous, cathedral-size Marquis, “Penn & Teller on Broadway” feels almost as intimate as a sidewalk game of three-card monte. The gift of seeming up close and personal with an audience of thousands is a skill that Penn and Teller have been refining since the 1985 Off Broadway show that propelled them into stardom in New York, and it may be their cleverest talent.
Fans who knew them then will find them utterly recognizable. They’re still wearing what look like the same sober, three-piece suits. Penn is thinner than he was but just as toweringly tall. And his chemistry with the shorter, sweeter Teller remains based, ingeniously and reassuringly, in comic archetypes: that of Mutt and Jeff, or Laurel and Hardy. Or, perhaps, Groucho and Harpo, with Penn playing the sardonic, scamming motormouth to Teller’s devilishly angelic silent partner.
Many of the tricks, too, are familiar, including the priceless segment in which Teller swallows one sewing needle after another, and Penn’s climactic fire-eating routine. Others are brand new, including the one that, by old-time magician standards, is probably the hoariest, the rabbit and the hat.
Even though Penn talks like a country auctioneer (or the heroic charlatan Harold Hill from “The Music Man”) trying to pull a fast one, what he’s usually saying is that we shouldn’t believe what we think we see him and Teller doing. A professed libertarian, he asks us to extend the same skepticism to invasive government practices like the use of metal detectors at airports. (For the record, a small metal sheet with the Bill of Rights engraved on it, designed expressly to set off such detectors, is on sale in the lobby for $10.)
My favorite vignette is a quiet one in which we watch a slouchy, film-noir Teller do amazing things with cigarettes — first from one angle and then from another, all-revealing one — while Penn delivers a spoken annotation. Such low-key moments are presented with the same throwaway bravado as the big set pieces, like the one in which an elephant is made to vanish.
That it isn’t really an elephant — and I won’t tell you what it is — is of a perfect, witty piece with these performers’ self-dismissing, self-deconstructing style. In theory, a Penn and Teller show is spoiler-proof because they make a point of spoiling their own deceptions, and even encourage you to go online to find out more about them, but they are also showmen to their toes who like to surprise stylishly.
Audience members are brought onstage for the elephant bit, as they are for others, including an opening trick involving a designated theatergoer’s cellphone. Unlike Patti LuPone, who has justly been railing against the use of personal technology in the audience during her performances in “Shows for Days” at Lincoln Center, Penn encourages us all to turn on our phones and take pictures.
The stars of this show are officially opposed to the use of magnifying simulcasts, though, because — as Penn correctly notes — the eyes of most people these days will automatically gravitate toward any screen in sight. And while you probably still won’t understand how Penn and Teller do what they do, even when they explain it you, it’s still a good idea to keep focused on the flesh-and-blood tricksters.
Woe to the theatergoer who is selected to operate a video camera for close-ups of a stunt involving a miniature cow on a card table. We see what the volunteer sees through the camera lens as the video is projected onto a giant screen, and we also see what is happening in three dimensions.
They are not the same thing. The most salutary and topical lesson of all in this amiably didactic vaudeville may be that, like so much else in this world, screens are usually big fat liars.