Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Penn & Teller on Broadway

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 12, 2015

Penn & Teller on Broadway with Mike Jones and Georgie Bernasek. Directed by John Rando. Production Stage Manager Kathleen Burton Boyette. Director of Covert Activities Nathan Santucci. Production Coordinator Robert P. Libbon. Scenic design by Daniel Conway. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Piano by Steinway & Sons.
Theatre: Marquis Theatre, 211 West 45th Street between Broadway and 46th Street
Running time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Audience : Recommended for mature children ages 8+.
Schedule: Limited engagement through August 16.
Mon 8 pm, Wed 8 pm, Th 8 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, Sun 8 pm.
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Penn Jillette and Teller
Photo by Joan Marcus

Thirty years after they first appeared in New York, Penn Jillette and his partner Teller still have a bit more anti-magic magic to pull out of their bottomless bag of tricks. Penn & Teller on Broadway, which just opened at the Marquis and is slated to run through August 16, is a buoyant celebration of their career together, true (per Jillette, they celebrate their 40th performing anniversary in August). But it likewise remains a deftly crafted, invigorating example of the unique prestidigitation they practice, in which their ongoing deconstruction of the traps of the trade amplifies the wows rather than dampening them.

For example, how many acts of this nature would begin with Teller materializing from within a solid wooden box that every audience member is encouraged (and allowed) to poke and prod for themselves in the half hour before the show proper starts? Then follow that up with a trick in which an audience member's smartphone creates a video recording of its entire journey from the volunteer's hand to a Styrofoam coffee cup and then inside a fish located in a sealed case positioned beneath the seat of someone else in the audience? Devote a full five minutes to crafting an outwardly straightforward illusion about a cigarette and the billowing smoke it creates, only to pull away the mirrors and reveal the intricacies of what was going on underneath? Or demonstrate exactly why sawing a woman in half isn't at all sawing a woman in half, but is instead—okay, maybe that one's not the best choice.

Still, more than most illusionists, the towering, talkative Jillette and the diminutive, silent Teller are all about giving you the unusual impression that you're genuinely in on the fun. Not all of it—do you honestly expect them to explain precisely how they make an, ahem, elephant disappear from a cage that's ringed by a line of intrepid audience members?—but more than enough. This makes you complicit in the entertainment: You'll have as good a time as you want while you're at the show, but in the end it's up to you to believe whether Jillette can really read others' minds to the point of determining which completely random joke they selected from a book, or survive a high-velocity encounter with a nail gun using only his finely honed memory.

Penn Jillette and Teller
Photo by Joan Marcus

In both cases, and plenty of others, Jillette reminds you that what you're encountering is, in fact, theatre, and that you should always remember that you are the mark. He all but outlines the improbability and impossibility of pulling a rabbit out of a top hat before he does just such a thing, fearlessly saws in half the invisible string Teller apparently uses to make a red ball literally jump through every hoop he can imagine, and chides those who look down on two of their longest-standing stunts: Teller's separately swallowing thread and a collection of needles, and regurgitating them all connected; and Jillette's shadowy musing on the history and mechanics of fire eating. Right before they do them to perfection, of course.

John Rando has directed, seemingly weaving, or perhaps just holding, the pieces together; things flow well, so he's done his job. Likewise, Daniel Conway did the spare Midtown midway set, Jeff Croiter the lights), which are just what's required. And pianist Mike Jones provides some musical flair by way of attractive, liquidy jazz before and during the show, and Georgie Bernasek puts a wry, knowing spin on the "lovely assistant." Still, there's not much any of them can do to bestow dramatic "legitimacy" that Jillette's deadpan, near-continuous narration and Teller's expansively subtle clowning cannot.

Not that you sense they need much help, anyway. The 8-year-old girl named Avery, who got an up-close-and-personal look at how the two can cut, refashion, and make teleport a lengthy piece of polyester is likely to spend at least the next few years (and maybe longer), to use Jillette's sideshow-to-revival-tent term, "preaching the gospel of Teller." And, heck, the 1,700 assembled patrons Saturday night (myself included), aren't likely to stop mumbling about "Close-up Magic With Little Cows," which despite being recorded start to finish with a video camera, manages to be about several different things simultaneously and still catch you by surprise when you discover its final destination. The point of Penn & Teller has always been that there's your perspective and there's what the trickster wants you to think is going, and the sooner you learn they're not the same, the better off you'll be.

The point is never made more succinctly than in "T.S.A.", in which the duo uses a freestanding metal detector to illuminate—and ultimately subvert—the illusion of safety that's fostered at America's airports. Plenty of things are able to pass through that walkway unattended: a plastic dagger, a giant shovel, Bernasek in full showgirl get-up. What sets off the alarm? A copy of the Bill of Rights printed on a tiny metal plate. "T.S.A.", like the rest of Penn & Teller on Broadway, is constructed so that you realize, accept, and eventually come to trust that Jillette and his partner, the evening's authorities, are in control, and it's tough to not delight in it. But while he may want you to let go some of your awe (if only enough to further his aims), Jillette also wants you consider, if only for a moment, whether everything in life is as worth giving up.

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