“We pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” says Penn Jillette near the start of Penn & Teller on Broadway. “We will saw a woman in half. We will disappear a live elephant. What the hell more do you want in a Broadway magic show?”
This is the duo’s first New York show in 15 years and it’s nice to see them bringing a bit of mystery to the Great White Way. (Well, more mystery than why Finding Neverland is still running.) Here they perform a couple of classic routines and some new ones, too. They even – in shades of Hugh Jackman in The River – gut a fish onstage.
Penn is plus-sized (though less so after recent weight loss). Teller is minus-sized. Teller is silent, Penn is inclined to bluster and rant. Their routines are based on contrast and simultaneity. Neither is handsome nor suave nor even especially charismatic – essentially, they’re anti-showmen. But their pleasure in the work and the unfussiness of their performances wins out. In this show, directed by John Rando, they draw on 40 years together and perform 17 tricks, with occasional musical breaks.
These 95 minutes are not exactly wall-to-wall marvels. A fair number of the tricks aren’t all that astounding – the rabbit, a bit involving a broken egg, a stunt routine with a nail gun, He’s a Little Teapot, where tea comes out of Teller’s sleeve. Maybe the brand of magic they do, which depends on both creating and dispelling illusion, has become more mainstream. Maybe some of the patter and the mime have gone stale. At times, their sleight of hand could be sleighter. Their libertarian boosterism, as in a scene involving airport metal detectors and the Bill of Rights, doesn’t especially enhance the wizardry.
But there are clever calibrations, too, as when they invite everyone on to the stage before the show begins to inspect a box out of which Teller will soon leap, and to sign an envelope used in a later scene. They never claim access to dark forces or mystical powers. On the contrary, they’ll warn you, as before a mind-reading routine like Psychic Comedian, that magic of any kind depends on more and less elaborate fake-outs. They even tell you where to look up the various deceptions online. They’re smart enough that letting the audience in on a secret or two makes confederates of all of us and doesn’t really make the successful tricks any less impressive.
Sometimes it makes them even more impressive. You know you’re being fooled and duped and bamboozled, but you fall for it anyway, from the mildly grotesque theatrics of the East Indian Needle Mystery to the silent beauty of Silverfish to a tabletop sequence that seems to be a joke on one audience member and then becomes a joke on all of us. Perhaps they don’t actually disappear a live elephant, but the trick they do perform, which involves most of the children in the crowd and their rapt parents, is a gentle astonishment.