Old Hats at Magic, Penn & Teller Bring New Tricks to Broadway

Opening Night   Old Hats at Magic, Penn & Teller Bring New Tricks to Broadway
The magical duo Penn & Teller returned to Broadway to dazzle audiences July 12 at the Marriot Marquis Theatre.

#Penn & Teller, who make magic & mischief with twin aplomb, are weeks away from their 40th anniversary as a showbiz team, but they opted to celebrate this a tad early July 12 with their first New York gig in almost 30 years. It's running through Aug. 16.

The Ritz, where they last played, has since vanished from the Main Stem (more accurately, it's now spelled The Walter Kerr). Their current habitat — the 1,612-seat Marquis, which was then in the happy throes of its first hit, Me and My Girl — is a good fit for the boys, being a thousand or two seats more than The Penn & Teller Theatre in Vegas where, for the past 14 years, they've regularly worked (and worked out).

Four decades of tricky, sometime twisted sleight of hand just whisked by in a giddy, tightly-packed laundry list of Newest Tricks and Greatest Hits. Your perceptions are in for heavy bombardment, and the question marks accumulate in a huge cluster. Take their "African-spotted pygmy elephant." Despite an arm-in-arm guard of some 30 audience members, the thing manages to disintegrate in thin air — spots and all.

But the most conspicuous disappearing act of all — what you notice first — is 105 pounds less of Penn Jillette. If you calculate it in weight loss, that's almost two-thirds of Teller. He shed it since September and, according to Teller, did it the old-fashioned way: "He went entirely vegan, without any animal products or oils."

Penn does all the huckstering — er, talking — for two, affecting an authoritative voice that falls somewhere between Reason and God. His old bombast is back in spades.

Teller, in stark and deliberate contrast, barely peeps at all, making his point with a shrug or a vague grin. He's Penn-foil, with a well-cultivated Stan Laurel persona — a milquetoast guinea-pig perfect for tank-dunking or catching bullets with his teeth.

Teller the timid was that way B.P. (Before Penn). "The key for me was learning the rich potential of shutting up," he admitted. "Originally, I did it as an experiment — a rebellion to inane, redundant magic patter — and it paid off when I played frat parties at Amherst. If I'd tried to shout them down, nobody would have paid attention. I said nothing but did things that made 'em nervous. Then, it was swallowing razorblades."

He gave up swallowing razorblades at age 20 for a "more acquired" taste: swallowing cast-iron needles and thread, then upchucking them in a connecting string. He performs the stunt still, to gasps. "I actually have a photograph on my wall of Houdini doing that trick in San Quentin in 1917 to 500 inmates in a prison yard."

Penn and Teller's star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame is mere steps from Harry Houdini's — which makes Penn euphoric: "We've gone so far beyond what we hoped for. They always say to keep them high, and, if you fail, that's OK. But nobody ever tells you what to do when you exceed your goals. That's where we are."

To hear Teller tell it, there have been no close calls in 60 years of dangerous illusions. "Houdini always gave the impression of being at great risk, but the only injury he ever sustained was a cracked ankle from being suspended upside down.

"Anytime you do something hazardous—and do it nightly — it has to be safer than going home and watching TV. Otherwise, you're doing something that — to Penn and me — is immoral. The audience isn't there to see genuine danger. They're there to see the thrill of danger as they might at a movie. They may toy with the idea of an unsafe outcome, but they only enjoy that if they really know what you are doing."

Curtain call
Curtain call Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel and Steven Baruch — who produced Penn & Teller here and in virtually all of their New York reincarnations — also produced The Producers, so maybe the showgirl decoration (Georgie Bernasek) was their idea. It was their idea to hire director John Rando (Urinetown, On the Town) to, as Penn said, "shake us up, slap us around, get us out of our old grooves and into new ones."

Rando said he didn't learn any magic tricks doing the show, but he did learn ABOUT magic: "I learned about the care and the professionalism. At the end, Penn says, 'We're not really interested in you thinking about how we do these things. We're more interested in you thinking WHY we do these things.' And I agree. I think by the time the whole evening is done and you really think about the why, it's theatrical. It's why we go to the circus tent and why we look at these wonderful, crazy acts and why we want to be inspired by something supernatural or amazing or profound."

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