Salon Review: Penn & Teller aim to work their brand of magic on Broadway

Magic doesn’t just happen like, well, magic.

That’s a major message of Penn and Teller, who for 40 years have plied their trade as sassy secularists in the priesthood of magicians, doing everything they can to undermine their brethren’s baton-and-black-cape mystique.

For them, magic isn’t voodoo. It’s an acquired skill that they — peerless in its acquisition — are exhibiting at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre starting Tuesday for a six-weeks-only gig through Aug. 16.

Drawing on their long association and their dozen-years-running engagement on the Las Vegas strip, “Penn & Teller on Broadway” is a bag of tricks that range from their first months together to illusions unveiled only weeks ago.

But Penn and Teller aren’t out to “trick” you (they say people don’t like getting tricked) as much as challenge your perceptions.

“It’s all about contrasting what your senses are telling you with what your experience is telling you,” says Teller, the single-monickered silent partner, who in person is loquacious. “You already know everything you need to know about the mysteries that we’re doing. We’re just placing that information in ways you have trouble accessing.”

“It’s so much more interesting that way,” pipes up Penn Jillette, Teller’s outspoken, towering other half. “For a magician to claim that what they’re doing is supernatural is either an attempt to bamboozle you, or it’s simply lying. We say, ‘We learned to do these tricks, and these tricks let us play around with how you ascertain what’s true.’ That way, we’re working with the audience to think about this stuff.”

And also make the audience laugh. The pair use comedy to play against the traditional pretensions of stage magic. They are both devout rationalists. No wonder their act is irreverent, even subversive, down to the comic illusion that Teller is a peewee. Which he is, but, inasmuch as he stands 5-foot-8, only when observed alongside Penn, a hefty 6-foot-7.

Interviewed recently in a production office in midtown Manhattan, they are pleased to note that, parting company with typical magicians, they don’t waste the audience’s time with lofty buildups for each trick.

“I worked silent before I ever knew Penn,” says the 67-year-old Teller (who, lest there be any doubt about his name’s singularity, shares with a reporter a couple of credit cards and his driver’s license, which all say simply, Teller). “It was partly a rebellion against magicians’ patter because anything I’d ever heard in a magic act was really stupid.”

So onstage Penn, 60, does all the talking. He plays the dominating provocateur, with Teller his mischievous accomplice.

By now they have three or four hours of magic in their active repertoire, “and there’s always two or three new ideas in the pipeline,” says Teller. But R&D for each new trick can take anywhere from six months to six years.

“I think people have a hard time imagining how many blind alleys we go down, at a hundred miles an hour,” says Penn.

“It’s not like playing a new song on the guitar,” says Teller. “We have to do the equivalent of inventing the guitar, then learning to play it, then writing the composition for it, then performing that song.”

For their Broadway show, Penn and Teller are presenting one trick whose gestation — 6 1/2 years — is a record for them.

“We vanish an African Spotted Pygmy Elephant,” says Penn, wearing a devilish smile. “Some say the elephant we use is just a cow dressed up. There are those who will say the trunk is just a drier hose strapped onto a feed bag of a cow. Some say it’s silly. But I think it may be the most amazing trick you’ve ever seen.”

For all the amazingness of the results, their brainstorming sessions sound strictly workaday.

“We meet at Starbucks on Tuesday afternoons for two or three hours and we just talk,” says Teller. “Out of those conversations, things come — even things, like half-a-trick we couldn’t make work before, that we finally resurrected from conversations we had 30 years ago.”

One trick resulted not from coffee at Starbucks.

“I believe we were having tea,” Penn reminds Teller, “and you began singing ‘I’m a Little Teapot.’ I said, ‘That would be a great trick.’”

“In the trick, Penn sings the song and I play the teapot,” says Teller, “and he picks me up by my elbow — my ‘handle’ — and he pours a cup of tea out of me. It’s a really hard trick. I don’t remember how long that took us to work out.”

“At least two years,” says Penn.

“The audience is misdirected by the fact that it’s profoundly silly,” says Teller. “Then the second reaction is: That’s impossible!”

That’s their magic twofer.