By Michall Jeffers
There’s something for everyone at Penn & Teller On Broadway. Magic, of course, but also political commentary, vituperative debunking, and a crash course in how to engage an audience. At 6’7,” dynamo Penn Jillette could dominate the stage without saying a word, but that role is left to his partner of forty years, Raymond (yes, he does have a first name) Teller. While Penn expertly plays the carny barker, Teller is akin to a French mime, and it is ultimately the little guy who brings the skill that captivates the watcher. In the tradition of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Marcel Marceau, he’s a sad faced, silent clown whose movements are reminiscent of ballet; he is both deft and graceful.. When he swallows pins, we hold our breath for him. When he does a cigarette trick from two angles, the fact that the gimmick is revealed in no way diminishes our appreciation for his artistry.
By comparison, Penn is nothing short of bombastic, a modern take on the Three-Card Monte huckster who makes it look easy to win the deal. He also has great heart, which is best seen in his interaction with members of the audience who are picked to come up on stage. At the performance I attended, an adorable 10-year-old tow-head became part of a routine using polyester fabric. Penn teased him in such a way that the boy realized we were laughing with him, not at him. He also showed concern for audience members as they climbed onto and off of the stage. In addition, he implored us to treat animals with the respect they deserve, and to be mindful about those which are endangered; we must not to be the last generation to share the Earth with them.
Recognizing this kinder, gentler side of Penn is an absolute necessary when we’re faced with his professed Libertarianism, and his railing against, of all things, airport security metal detectors. He actually has a TSA arch onstage, and a small metal card printed with the Bill of Rights is, he assures us, “sold at the gift shop.” As for actually whipping this out to prove your rights are being violated at an airport- well, I wouldn’t advise it.
In the same iconoclastic vein, Penn declares, in no uncertain terms, that all psychics, mind readers, and spiritualists are predators and criminals, “false friends with false sympathy.” He names names, and gives demystifying demonstrations of “cold readings,” the technique by which people are duped into thinking a practitioner knows more than he actually does about the victim seeking council. Penn makes no bones about being a skeptic and an atheist, in addition to being an expert magician who appreciates skilled illusionists he deems worthy.
For those whose mission it is to just enjoy the entertainment and ignore the preaching, the Penn & Teller act doesn’t disappoint. This is a show which is eminently suitable for family members of all ages. As Penn bellows after updating the hoary old trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, “What the hell more do you want out of a magic act?”
Cast: Penn Jillette, Teller, Mike Jones , Georgie Bernasek
Director, John Rando
Sets, Daniel Conway; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; magic consultant, Johnny Thompson
Penn & Teller On Broadway, through August 16, 2015
Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway (46th St. between Broadway & 8th Ave.)
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.