That new mad magic - Penn & Teller deal from a strange deck
THEY'RE shuffling cards. Both of them. During an interview, they shuffle cards. The way someone else fiddles with a pen, these guys shuffle cards.Skip to next paragraph
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But then, these guys are Penn and Teller - ``Penn & Teller'' as they're officially known - one of the hottest vaudeville teams playing on Broadway. Well, also the only vaudeville team playing on Broadway.
Except that Penn and Teller don't like being called ``vaudeville.''
``Nah,'' says Penn Jillette, the taller, more outspoken half of the act. ``If you look back on the history of sitcoms, you'll end up with more good stuff than vaudeville did.'' And forget about calling them magicians, or comedians, or even Broadway material - all of which they have been ever since their Obie-award-winning comedy-magic show moved uptown after 22 sold-out months Off Broadway. These guys just don't like to be classified.
``We hate everything,'' says Penn, riffling his cards. ``I still have never seen a Broadway show I like, and there are very few comedians we like.''
``Yeah, everybody we like is dead,'' seconds Teller (who uses just that name), with a polite snap of his deck.
So, what are these two doing at the Ritz Theatre, where Dame Sybil Thorndike and Alfred Lunt used to play? Tying each other up in straightjackets, locking each other in tanks of water, eating fire. Oh yeah, and card tricks. Or, as Penn says in his machine-gun delivery during the show, ``We're two eccentric guys who've learned to do a few cool things.''
At a time when almost anything and everything, with the exception of serious drama, seems to play on Broadway. Penn & Teller have conjured success with a new hybrid entertainment: a blend of old and new magic tricks spiked with metaphysics and macabre humor. If performers like Bill Irwin and the Flying Karamazov Brothers pioneered the so-called New Vaudeville, Penn & Teller have upped it a notch. Not only does the duo specialize in ``tipping the gaff'' to the lay public (showing how a trick is done) but their entire show is laced with an irreverent self-consciousness that's unusual by Broadway standards. Critics have called them everything from ``a mild curiosity'' to ``Post-Seriousness Theater'' - performers who ``unmask the tradition of stage magic in much the same way that David Letterman has unmasked the idea of the late-night talk show.''
``Mostly it's because we don't have competition at all,'' says Penn about their out-of-left-field success. ``We got into this area - sort of amazing dark stuff - that no one else does.''
Partners since 1973, the duo found their 15 minutes of fame largely by breaking the rules. Patterning themselves after ``no one,'' they staged an increasingly iconoclastic road show. For 10 years Penn & Teller played in high school auditoriums, open-air festivals, almost anywhere anyone would pay them to juggle and tell their weird brand of jokes. The pair honed their act (which originally included a third performer, a musician) before opening at New York's Westside Arts Theater three years ago. The show earned instant cult status.
There were performances on ``Saturday Night Live'' and ``Late Night With David Letterman'' (the two dumped cockroaches on Letterman's desk), guest spots on ``Miami Vice,'' and PBS and cable specials. Then came Broadway, a 15-week run that ends next month, to allow the pair to shoot their first feature film, ``Penn & Teller Get Killed.'' Also upcoming is a book and the video, ``Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends.''
``We've never belonged any place we've played,'' says Teller. ``And we certainly didn't model ourselves on Broadway. But theater critics seem to think we're doing a show - not a concert - with a beginning, middle, and end.''
Well, sort of.