That new mad magic - Penn & Teller deal from a strange deck

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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``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.

Wearing plain gray suits and red power ties - Penn adds cowboy boots, a ponytail, and his Brillo pad bangs - the duo kicks off the evening with a bellowed ``Let's party.'' For the next 90 minutes, they work with the house lights blazing, pulling audience members to the stage to participate in their grab-bag performance - a combination of standard (East Indian Needle Mystery) and not-so-standard (Quote of the Day) magic tricks, augmented by poetry recitations, comic monologues, and ontological riffs. The show opens with Penn reading ``Casey at the Bat'' at laser speed, while Teller dangles over a bed of spikes encased in a straight jacket. They close the show on a more metaphysical note - Penn holding aloft a blazing torch while expounding on the tradition of the American sideshow. ``If this light falls on your face and we catch your eye, it's important.''

In between, Teller, a Henry Gibson look-alike, remains silent as Harpo Marx throughout the evening, amiably playing straight man to Penn's relentless, almost abrasive patter. ``Do you believe you've selected that number of your own free will?'' Penn hollers at one audience volunteer. ``Well, you're going to love this year's election results, too.''

Their appeal owes as much to their undeniable magic skills as their hip wit - that Letterman-like irreverence that spares no one, not even themselves.

``There are really no experts at this magic stuff, except for the old-fashioned tricks,'' says Penn. ``You know, like the box to saw the woman in half. Stuff like that. But's it's really all timing.''

If the pair are ambivalent - even disdainful - about magic and magicians (the two have had a running feud with several trade publications and at least one magician's organization over their tendency to ``tip the gaff'') they wax positively reverential, almost to the point of smugness, about the principle behind their show - a belief in honesty of performance.

``I come from that odd Lenny Bruce position - that people shouldn't lie to each other,'' echoes Penn, who wears biker's boots and a strand of pearls during the interview. ``It's a cynicism that we see as pure optimism.''

``Tricks are great theater - the most surprising, complicated live theater you can have,'' says Teller, sipping tea from cup emblazoned with a deck-of-cards motif. ``You see one thing that you know can't be what it seems, so your mind is automatically working on two levels.''

It is the kind of respect for form that verges on exploitation. The two attribute much of their success to knowing - and capitalizing on - the difference in the performance mediums. ``Everything we do in this show you can only do live,'' says Teller. ``When we do the movie, we will do stuff that works only on film.''

Although some of the stunts used in their live show are ancient and honorable magic, most of what they perform they've invented. The ``Quote of the Day,'' an astonishingly complicated piece of mentalism, Penn describes as ``a bugbear to think up.'' Other bits conclude with bizarre twists; an apparently straightforward card trick concludes with a hand-stabbing, albeit faked. ``We basically just decide what we want to do, and we don't have a clue how to do it or where to put the jokes until we work it out,'' says Penn.

If the pair is understandably elusive about its creative processes - Teller simply describes the water tank trick, which has him submerged for more than six minutes, as ``uncomfortable, but it's a really good bit'' - they are only slightly more forthcoming about their backgrounds. Amherst College-educated Teller is a former high school teacher of Latin and Greek, who did magic shows on the side in ``a silently creepy way.'' Penn, who did a stint at the Ringling Brothers' clown college instead of regular college, comes to performance from more rambunctious, music-oriented roots. ``I liked Lenny Bruce, rock 'n' roll,'' says Penn, who still plays part-time in a rock band. ``I was a juggler in junior high, won talent shows, that kind of stuff.'' The two were introduced by a mutual friend when Penn was still in high school, and shortly thereafter they formed their show.

``Clearly Penn & Teller are extensions of our personalities,'' says Penn. ``But they're also an oversimplification. If you watched people who really locked people into water tanks, there would be no enjoyment.''

``Absolutely,'' chimes in Teller. ``I'm in utter sympathy with Hitchcock, who said, `Don't give them slices of life, give them slices of cake.'''

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