Nearly 30 years after their award-winning Broadway debut, the comedy/magic duo of Penn & Teller have returned to the Great White Way for a third time in their latest show, the straightforwardly titled Penn & Teller on Broadway.
The show is a combination of new material and a retrospective on their partnership of four decades.
The duo consists of Penn Jillette, the talker, and the ironically named Teller, who never speaks a word. They’ve remained popular and busy throughout their career—they’re the longest running headline act in Las Vegas history and have made numerable appearances on television, including hosting the acerbic Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on Showtime.
They pack 17 routines into the tight 90-minute show, ranging from the magician clichés of sawing a woman in half and pulling a rabbit out of a hat (a trick they confess to never having seen any magician perform in real life), to more modern routines involving nail guns, metal detectors and a cell phone that will have Patti LuPone grinding her teeth. The show also honors the team’s early days, with Teller performing the “East Indian Needle Mystery” in which he swallows a dozen or so sewing needles—this act so impressed teenage Penn Jillette when he saw Teller perform it for the first time in 1975 that he sought him out and a partnership was born.
The contrast of their styles gives the show a certain musicality, with Teller’s pieces tending toward quiet, almost poetic moments and providing a counterpoint to Jillette’s more blustery, cocky, raconteur character. Their styles play off of each other nicely, especially in their trick “Looks Simple” which involves Jillette playing an upright bass and narrating as Teller performs the (seemingly) simple act of lighting a cigarette on stage. It’s only when Teller performs the same feat again but from a different angle that you realize how much misdirection, skill and showmanship went into the “simple” trick.
Unlike most magicians who follow the illusionist code of “Never Revealing How It’s Done,” Penn and Teller seem to enjoy doing so in ways that are as entertaining as the original tricks they’re spoiling. We all can guesstimate how the lady-sawed-in-half routine works but you’ll never look at it the same way once these gentlemen have given you a grisly inside look. They also love deflating self-aggrandizing stage acts like Criss Angel.
Other highlights include “One Minute Egg,” in which the titular egg is broken and reconstituted, and “Close Up Magic With Little Cows,” both of which incorporate video technology to good effect.
Never ones to worry about offending an audience, Penn and Teller don’t shy away from including more thought-provoking material most performers would avoid, whether political (a Libertarian jab at the TSA) or skeptical (Penn’s epic take down of psychics and other supernatural charlatans). It’s clear they want the audience to think as well as marvel. To their credit they never condescend.
This is demonstrated beautifully in the closing trick (more accurately called a stunt, according to Jillette): fire eating. After telling the audience exactly how the illusion will be done, Jillette uses it as an opportunity to reflect on his own origins as a magician and the relationship between performer and spectator. His explanation turns the effort from pure spectacle to a personal statement.
Penn & Teller have produced another amusing and provocative show, which will be entertaining audiences until their limited run ends August 16. Be sure to check it out and don’t forget to take a selfie with them in the lobby after the show!
Penn & Teller on Broadway
The Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway, NYC
Through August 16.
Alex Robinson’s books include Box Office Poison, Tricked, and Too Cool to Be Forgotten, all of which are available from Top Shelf Productions. He has won and lost several industry awards. He currently lives in New York City with his wife, a cat and a dog.