Master illusionists Penn and Teller (whose act turns 40 this week!) do better than pull a rabbit out of a hat: They reach deep into our collective need to believe and extract skepticism. It’s not an easy trick. Humans seem to be hardwired for credulity, gladly surrendering our freedom to hucksters and peddlers of spiritual claptrap. (Penn, not coincidentally, is an outspoken atheist.) We want to believe in miracles, unseen forces that operate on that earthly plane. Penn and Teller insist that there’s no such thing as magic—right before they blow our minds with some brilliant coup.
The tension between knowing you’re being fooled and not knowing exactly how is the secret to their success. Penn and Teller go the extra mile that David Blaine and Criss Angel (the latter gently mocked in the show) never do: They ask what it all means. “When you leave here tonight and you’re thinking about our show,” Penn rasps at us in his signature bass, “we don’t want you to be thinking about how we did it. We want you to be thinking about why.” The glib retort would be that they want to turn us into fellow libertarians while banking some cash. But it also has to do with making us more inquisitive citizens.
The set list for their latest gig is a mix of classic bits and new stuff. We see Teller’s enchanting routine with a fishbowl, wondrously appearing coins and an explosion of goldfish. Penn demonstrates his awesome memory skills with a nail gun he alternately fires at a board and his own hand. Teller coaxes a red ball to jump through hoops. They hand out books of jokes to the audience, and Penn accurately guesses what joke a volunteer has chosen. In one silly yet impressive sequence, they cause an African Spotted Pygmy Elephant (which looks suspiciously like a modified cow) to disappear.
As performers, they may be a touch grizzled and crusty—although the mutely bemused Teller, with his Harpo Marx–on-Xanax persona, seems ageless. However, as we enjoy Penn’s carnival-barker bluster and Teller’s delicate, exquisitely expressive clowning, spectators of a certain age will relish the chance to spend 90 minutes with two consummate neo-vaudevillians who, let’s face it, have been entertaining us most of our adult lives. I go to magic shows for cheap thrills, not to dwell on the mechanics of belief or free will, but Penn and Teller—philosophers as much as con men—deftly make that switcheroo.