WASHINGTON — PENN & TELLER, the comic duo, held what was billed as an underwater press conference the other day in this publicity-saturated city, where press conferences are viewed as both an art form and a heavy industry. There may have been those in the White House press office who gnashed their teeth because Penn & Teller did it first. Embattled administration spokesmen over the years have hinted that if the White House press corps asked one more impudent question on a sensitive subject, they might restore the room to its former splendor. There is usually nervous laughter over this, because the present briefing room used to be the presidential swimming pool until Richard Nixon pulled the plug and turned it into a communications arena. When the briefings get too adversarial, reporters sometimes joke that the White House may be getting ready to flood the room again.
But it wasn't the press that was underwater at the briefing for the ``Penn & Teller'' Obie award-winning show winding up its US tour at the National Theater through July 9. It wasn't Penn Jillette underwater, either; he briefed the press in a very dry gray suit, blue shirt, and red tie. It was his comic co-pilot Teller. We knew that because there was a carefully letter ``Teller'' sign on the man-sized upright water tank where Teller bobbed like a sea anemone. Snorkleless, gill-less, he stayed underwater for a near-Teller record of six minutes and 35 seconds, while Penn did his act and reporters did theirs.
Teller had been supposed to pop out of the tank when the best question was asked, but that never happened. Near the six-minute point Teller began tapping on the locked tank, then knocking, then banging on it as an oblivious Penn chattered on. When his shaking of the tank splashed water on the front row press, Penn finally freed him. Teller flopped damply over the side and spewed water. Then he slogged off stage without a word.
Meanwhile Penn tossed a morsel of news to the press: They have just made their first movie, ``Penn and Teller Get Killed,'' to be released in late September. After the press conference, Penn answered a few questions about it: ``It's a thriller, a comedy; it's a very, very strange movie. Like I said, Arthur Penn [''Bonnie and Clyde,'' ``The Miracle Worker''] directed it. You don't do much better than that....
``Teller and I wrote it. It's set in Atlantic City, 'cause we wanted a place that was urban and depressing. And you can't really do better than Atlantic City. We play absolutely ourselves, not even guys kind of like us.''
At the end Teller emerged looking blow-dried, suit and all, but remained silent. ``When do you get to talk?'' asked a reporter. ``Whenever I please'' he said and exited.