Washington Times Review: Penn & Teller show plenty up their sleeves

At a time when most theater performers are paranoid about getting everyone to turn off their cellphones — hello, Patti LuPone — Penn & Teller want them on. And the ringer on loud.

“Take out your cellphones, turn them on, hold them up!” Penn Jillette, the larger, speaking half of the magic duo says as he kicks off their new show on Broadway.

What happens next seems to betray physics. It involves a volunteer divorced from his phone, a bucket, a sealed box found in the audience and a dead fish, out from which the phone miraculously reappears.

The fish — like the trick — is as fresh as ever.

Celebrating 40 years of performing together, Penn & Teller’s new show that opened Sunday at the Marquis Theatre celebrates new and old tricks, and, as typical, mixes in plenty of comedy that bursts the traditional pretensions of stage magic.

There’s a subversive whiff to their show, whether it’s exploding myths about the metal detectors used by the Transportation Security Administration or vilifying so-called clairvoyants who prey on vulnerable people.

“The people who claim these powers are liars, cheaters, swindlers and rip-off artists. The tricks themselves are evil, immoral — and I know how to do them all,” Penn says.

The show’s tent poles have the pair pulling a rabbit out of a hat, sawing a woman in half and making what they call an African Spotted Pygmy Elephant vanish.

But there’s something here for everyone, including a nail-gun bit that will make you wince, some clever close-up magic and a trick that has Teller swallowing needles and the audience gagging. Volunteers are often needed onstage and treated with respect.

These are a pair of self-acknowledged skeptics and libertarians who believe in tricks — not real risk — and don’t believe in using plants in the audience — “We believe it is just too expensive,” Penn jokes. They tease the crowd like trained strippers, revealing just enough, but not all.

How Teller managed to get a red ball to do his bidding like a dog is divulged. But how Penn correctly predicted the punch line from a single random joke from dozens of books is not. We learn some tantalizing clues about sawing people, but how a large animal managed to disappear into thin air is on us.

There’s even a break-down of the common stunts, with Teller performing and Penn playing double bass. You learn about palming, loading, misdirection and ditching — but soon learn that the joke is on you: Those reveals are low-hanging fruit. How did that elephant disappear?

Teller, the single-monickered silent partner, gets to shine in a few solo tricks that smell of classic magic, including one with goldfish and a shadow bit. He’s like a silent movie star, a nice juxtaposition from his bombastic partner.

Directed by John Rando, Penn & Teller’s tricks here celebrate the sideshow of yore, the slight-of-hand gags of practiced pros, not the empty-calorie flash of the likes of Criss Angel. Penn says he wants the audience to wonder not how they do their tricks, but why.

The show takes a thoughtful turn at the end with a long monologue by Penn about his childhood glee at seeing the circus freaks and some extended fire-eating.

“You’re in our tent and the side show ain’t dead,” Penn says.

Then the duo are done, a little wiped out, both smoking cigarettes, as if post-coitally. But where that darn elephant went is still a mystery.