'Penn & Teller On Broadway': Theater Review

Francis George
Penn and Teller
Performing a mixture of greatest hits and new routines, these magic deconstructionists put on a wildly entertaining show

The veteran illusionist duo returns to Broadway for their first NYC stage appearance in fifteen years.

Admit it: for years you've heard the common stereotype about magicians pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but you've never actually seen one do it. Leave it to Penn & Teller to finally make that old chestnut a reality as one of the highlights of their new show, Penn & Teller On Broadway. Marking their first NYC engagement in 15 years, the duo, who have become Las Vegas fixtures in their eponymously named theater, deliver an entertaining, fast-paced show featuring a combination of classic and new illusions. Having performed together for four decades, they have evolved from iconoclastic magicians into an institution, with scads of film and TV appearances and bestselling books among their credits.

For the uninitiated, Penn is the tall, garrulous one, regaling the audience with running commentary both serious and amusing, while the silent, diminutive Teller impishly performs dazzling sleight of hand.

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They are debunkers and deconstructionists of magic, frequently reminding us that their seemingly miraculous feats are achieved through mere trickery. In a confounding mind-reading routine in which Penn guesses the jokes randomly chosen by audience members from books handed out, he angrily decries the "hucksters" and "frauds" who claim that that their feats are achieved through genuine psychic powers. He also takes pains to assure us that, unlike other magicians, they don't use audience plants, mainly because they're "just too expensive."

Social commentary is pointedly injected into the proceedings, most notably in a bit involving a genuine airport metal detector that provides an opportunity for Penn to rail against the loss of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. To that end they have created a small metal card emblazoned with the Bill of Rights, which he happily points out is on sale in the theater's gift shop.

Penn and Teller are also proud magic traditionalists, performing classic routines originally made famous by Houdini more than a century ago. In one of them, Teller appears to swallow dozens of needles and thread, only to produce them from his mouth fully threaded seconds later. And while Houdini famously made an elephant disappear — he once performed the illusion at the long torn-down Hippodrome, located just a few blocks away — Penn and Teller vanish an "African spotted pygmy elephant" (actually a costumed cow) as it's surrounded by recruited audience members.   

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Fans will be familiar with some of their routines, including Teller hauntingly making petals fall off a flower by slashing its shadow, and Penn's show-closing fire-eating, accompanied by a confessional monologue in which he explains how the feat is achieved.

There's also plenty of audience participation, including a bit in which a theatergoer's cell phone is seemingly smashed to bits only to reappear — well, no spoilers here — and a hilarious segment in which they, and we, have a lot of fun with a hapless volunteer enlisted to videotape some close-up magic involving tiny cow figurines.  

They also do the vintage mainstay of sawing a woman in half — in this case, their scantily clad, comely assistant Georgie Bernasek — although the Penn and Teller version shockingly features plenty of blood and guts.

While the evening is expertly staged by Broadway veteran John Rando (On the Town, Urinetown), one suspects the real behind-the-scenes star is Nathan Santucci, credited as "Director of Covert Activities." The show is receiving a strictly limited engagement through Aug. 16, after which the duo heads back to Vegas. Catch them before they disappear.

Cast: Penn & Teller, Mike Jones, Georgie Bernasek
Director: John Rando
Set designer: Daniel Conway
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Presented by Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Jason Van Eman and Ben McConley, in association with Glenn S. Alai

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