Over the past 14 years, you could catch Penn & Teller live in Vegas, all over television, including on their Showtime series “Penn & Teller: Bulls—!,” and even on a Katy Perry music video. But in all those years their only New York appearance was a measly week at the Beacon in 2000. No wonder the deprived fans of these thrillingly subversive comic magicians are lining up at the Marquis Theater for the six-week engagement of “Penn & Teller on Broadway.”
Among other marvels in this new show, the longtime (40 years, if you’re counting) partners pull a rabbit out of a hat, make an elephant disappear, and saw a lady in half. As Penn Jillette, the tall, talky one, puts it: “What more do you want out of a magic show?”
A lot more, actually, and we get it, too, in jokes serious and silly, political digs with sharp points, diatribes against fraudulent psychics, little lectures on ethics, and non-stop foolery that can be divided into pranks, stunts, tricks, illusions, deceptions, and baffling feats of — for want of a better word — magic. (Penn prefers “God-given miracles.”)
Working in close partnership, Penn and Teller are uncommonly civil to their audiences, inviting people onstage before the show to learn some of the tricks of their offbeat trade and spending considerable time in the lobby after the show, talking and posing for selfies. Maybe they’re tougher on the Vegas gambling crowd, but audience participation is warmly encouraged for this legit gig. They even buck the current trend of shaming theater audiences for the rude use of cell phones with their opening number, “Turn on Your Cell Phones,” which actively engages people in an elaborate routine that involves one person’s cell phone and — wait for it — a fresh fish.
Individually, the two performers work in different but compatible styles. Teller, the strange little guy with the unnerving habit of communicating only in mime-speak, is the classical magician in this partnership. He’s the one who gets to do the emblematic but rarely seen magic trick of pulling a rabbit (in this case, a little white bunny) out of a gentleman’s top hat.
Teller’s specialty is the apparently simple, low-tech, no frills trick — like crushing an egg in his hand and somehow restoring it to its untouched original form — that proves utterly baffling. The poetry of this classical style is on display in “Shadows,” his silent spectacle of making the petals on a rose fall off by clipping the shadow of the flower projected on a white screen. And his signature trick (“East Indian Needle Mystery”) of swallowing loose needles that re-emerge from his throat fully threaded is surely as chilling now as it ever was when Houdini first performed it.
Penn is the most fun when he’s fuming about something that offends his skeptical, cynical, irreligious, libertarian and quite contrary sensibility. He’s in his full glory in “Psychic Comedian,” castigating “evil” and “immoral” charlatans who dupe credulous people by claiming to have supernatural abilities. “They’re all tricks!” he thunders about the mind-reading acts that he then proceeds to duplicate with an uncanny act of his own — the trick of which he never reveals.
Pranks are quite different from tricks. Offended by government poking and prodding into the privacy of its citizenry, Penn pulls off a politically charged prank by confounding an airport metal detector with a clever gadget that you, dear audience, can purchase at the gift counter in the lobby.
The best illusion in the show is “The Vanishing Elephant,” a comic number performed in full view of a stageful of watchers recruited from the audience. It’s quite silly, sure to leave you laughing, and also totally baffled.
At the end of the show, Penn slows down his rapid-fire patter to reminisce about the carnival sideshows he loved as a kid. After informing us that the fire-eating display that fascinated him in his youth is neither a trick nor a prank, nor even an illusion, but a stunt, at times a painful, even dangerous stunt. And after explaining exactly how it’s done, he then proceeds to … do … it.
What they are really doing is messing with your head. By assuring us that all live animals used in the show are treated with “compassion, dignity and respect,” they elicit twinges of guilt in us for not having given a thought to the wellbeing of the bunny or the cow or any other animal paraded on stage. And when Penn rages about “immoral” magicians who perform dangerous tricks for dramatic effect, he’s slyly laughing at us for watching his scary “Nail Gun” act and secretly wondering if this might be the night when this particular dangerous trick would turn deadly.
But let’s be honest, here. Is anyone in this audience really disturbed when the magicians saw a woman into halves in the most graphic and gory manner — and then don’t even bother to clean up the blood and gore and put her back together again?