The appearance of magicians on Broadway raises the age-old question, how much scenery do you have to give the audience to justify Broadway prices? In the case of Penn and Teller, the amazing answer is: very little.
These days the magic business is a tricky one. In an Age of Belief, the audience comes to see magicians with good will and an eagerness to be mystified. In an Age of Incredulity like ours, the audience comes with a collective chip on its shoulder, skeptical, mistrusting, eager to see some slip that will show how the tricks are done.
Several famous magicians who have had Broadway shows in recent years have come up short because they lack the magician's aura. You can imagine them meeting with technicians to devise the tricks. You can imagine them running rehearsals to get the crew's moves down to split-second precision. But none of these administrative skills constitutes a magician in my book. That's why they need more scenery than Penn and Teller.
Now, as it happens Penn and Teller give you plenty of scenery, if that's what you care about. What's more important is that they understand the audience's cynicism and tailor their work accordingly.
Thus, in one number, in which the appendages of Teller pop up from amazing places, they go through the trick a second time to show how it's done. Because Teller is so graceful it's just as - if not more - magical as it was the first time.
The short, gremlin-like Teller does almost no talking, which makes him a perfect foil for the tall, cocky Penn Jillette, who has the blustery manner of the men who demonstrate rug shampoos on the sidewalk outside dime stores.
At their best, they are capable of great poetry, as in a trick in which Teller draws blood from the silhouette of a flower. (They do a lot with blood, by the way, which seems like an astute response to the audience's perhaps unconscious perception of magic as a link to occult ritual.)
In some ways the current show is not as strong as their previous Broadway venture, which had a more dazzling opening and a more poetic closing. But some of their tricks (particularly those devised by Houdini) are quite astounding, and everything they do has a wit and panache all too rare in both magic and theater nowadays.
Imagine. You are squatting on stage - at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, to be exact - showing off a few snazzy sleight-of-mind tricks with red handkerchiefs. Admittedly you have covered yourself with a kind of dust cloth, so perhaps you should be prepared for anything. Even your maker.
Then, after a callous countdown joined in by a sadistic audience, they crash down a huge refrigerator upon you and your partner. How huge? Well, I'm not sure, but big, very big, and solid, very solid. And crash...very crash!
I suppose it could be said that those stylish and modishly demythologized magicians, Penn & Teller, brought it on themselves. For it is the beginning of their performance, and they are calling this their "Refrigerator Tour," so presumably they are only suitably crushed by the turn of events.
And they do come up smiling - instantly going into some rather savage card tricks, using an inventive dagger to prevent them from becoming, in the words of Penn Jillette (he's the big one who looks like a bank clerk with a ponytail and one artistic earring), "too wimpy."
Call them magicians, call the illusionists, call them conjurers, even call them fakirs - but don't call Penn and Teller wimpy. They would probably change you into a toad.
They are performing many of their tricks that have become beloved and famous over the past few years - and three or four new ones, such as this eponymous refrigerator bone-crusher and a finale (a faintly repulsive finale, as it happens) featuring a whole maze of animal traps.
They are extremely clever - and to the gullible such as myself, wonderfully mysterious. I mean I still don't see how they can even be alive at the Eugene O'Neill after the iceman cometh with that refrigerator. And - I suppose perhaps they won't be. At least no one will have called them wimps.
What distinguishes Penn and Teller from their competitors is first their stress on humor and their personalities. Jillette is the abrasive one. Teller, wistful, leprechaunish, poetic and largely the silent partner, is the lovable one.
But more than simply trading on their personalities and presentation, they go to great pains to tell us that their trickery is merely trickery - as Penn himself suggests, it would take the touching faith of a Shirley MacLaine really to believe in them - and often show us how their tricks are done.
For example, we first see a seemingly incredible trick with various body parts of the agile Teller popping up all over the place in apparently impossible profusion. Then the dauntless duo repeat the same trick with transparent props, and we can see how Teller (even more agile than we suspected possible) manages to be in two places with different appendages at virtually the same time.
Later they show us a pressed-duck trick not once - but twice, the the second time explaining how it is done. I didn't watch closely enough even the second time around, but then I am a sucker for this kind of thing. I believe in Doug Henning.
The trouble is even I do not believe long enough - and this present Penn and Teller show is definitely too long. Half an hour cut out of it would be a virtue.
There could also be more of Teller's incisive acting (as in "Cuffed to a Creep" and "Shadows") and less of Penn's blowhard self-indulgence (as in throughout), which has lost much of its brash charm since it was first encountered more modestly off-Broadway.
But for people who have never seen Penn and Teller, a treat awaits them. Perhaps an overlong treat - unless (God help them!) it should be cut at the outset by the falling fridge - but a treat nonetheless.
A chandelier drops to the stage in "Phantom of the Opera." A helicopter lands in "Miss Saigon." And in "Penn and Teller: The Refrigerator Tour," a refrigerator crashes down on the show's two stars. Where the Broadway competition delays a big theatrical moment in order to increase anticipation, Penn and Teller brazenly use it to begin their show. Should something go awry, it would of course end the show. Fearful theatergoers need not worry about the squashing of Penn and Teller. They survive the refrigerator, laugh at the audience's gasp and move into two hours of iconoclastic assault on the temple of magic.
Searching for a category in which to pigeonhole the partners, one might come up with new-wave magicians or comic illusionists. They are also -- to use their own word -- charlatans. As debunkers, they seek to remove the mystique from magic, to demonstrate the digitation behind the presti. In that sense, they are cogent critics of their own profession. Practicing the art of show and tell, first they do it, then they explain how they did it, while still leaving ample subterfuge in the air.
Because they are evidently so pleased with the title trick, they perform a variation of it later in the show, with an anvil substituting for the refrigerator and a duck standing in for Penn and Teller. In other words, one duck equals two quacks.
To those who may have missed their previous New York performances, their television appearances, or their movie, "Penn and Teller Get Killed" (everyone missed their movie), it should be said that Penn Jillette is big and burly and has long hair, though he has combed away the Daliesque curl on his forehead. Teller (who goes by no other name) is short and seemingly timid, but leonine in his daring, especially when he is on a stage yawning with animal traps.
In their return to New York, in a show that opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, Penn and Teller have added a number of new routines to twists and variations on ones from past performances. Card tricks still share the stage with large-scale, Houdini-style disappearing acts. As usual, not everything is intended to amuse, although almost everything is intended to confound.
Even if they were available for hire, they would not be magicians of choice for a child's birthday party. In at least one routine, the show leaps over the edge into grotesquerie, as Penn and a female assistant, Carol Perkins, engage in a mock-sexual challenge match of prandial pyromania -- or fire-eating. Though the show may not be to everyone's taste, one cannot deny the originality of the performance.
In a switch on sawing a woman in half, Penn does a trick in which he appears to shuffle Teller's disembodied head and limbs in a variety of boxes. Then he repeats the moves with transparent boxes and we see Teller slither from place to place, poking his head, waving an arm and flexing a foot. For all the candidness about magic trickery, they reveal only as much as they want to. We never do find out how they manage to float a volunteer in the air while her head rests on the back of a chair.
Watching the show, I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock (not just in the malicious humor). With Penn and Teller, magic gains a MacGuffin: a hook, sometimes farfetched, on which to hang invention. Some of the tricks are so complicated as to make one lose sight of the original purpose. The fun is in the playing out of the exercise. It becomes shaggier and more labyrinthine, as in an audience-involving game show entitled "Mofo, the Psychic Gorilla."
In this routine, Teller speaks, though he pretends not to. For most of the show he is mum. This is certainly not the case with Penn, who is unable to stop talking. Like a sideshow barker, he gabs his way through a rodomontade spiel in which he needles his fellow magicians, fools the audience and foils his partner. Teller is no easy mark. Even wordless he may be the wittier half. Together, Penn and Teller are a matchless team of self-mocking sorcerers.