Magic show with a college education

Penn Jillette of ``Penn and Teller'' is tall, bulky, bespectacled, and abruptly no-nonsense. In his three-piece business suit, he might pass for a slightly wayward suburban Yuppie or a slightly rumpled academic. When he heckles the audience, which he does quite frequently, he suggests an Ivy League Don Rickles. All of this adds up to a persona combining old-time carnival pitchman and new-style entertainer-magician. He recites, juggles, sings, plays rock guitar, eats fire, and performs sundry feats of legerdemain. Teller -- who, like Prince, dispenses with a first name -- is the small, silent, deadpan partner of the act's bulky hunk of garrulity. With more modesty than Penn himself ever displays, the partners describe themselves as ``two eccentric guys who have learned to do a few cool things.'' Fair enough.

``Let's party,'' Penn announces to the audience at the Westside Arts Theatre/Downstairs. Whereupon, the lads go into their eccentricities. While Penn delivers a gradually accelerated recital of ``Casey at the Bat,'' Teller, who is suspended upside down, squirms his way out of a straitjacket. Casey's ignominy coincides with Teller's triumph.

Penn and Teller apply their own brand of zany iconoclasm to assorted tricks of the magician's trade. Their repertoire includes levitation, ``mind reading,'' the threading of swallowed embroidery needles, knife juggling (with and without apples), materializing of coins, and a sleight-of-hand feat with cups and balls which Mr. Teller informs the audience is 2,000 years old.

``Penn & Teller'' is a novel and funny variant on an immemorial vaudeville tradition. If the second and wilder part becomes somewhat elongated, not to worry. The partners always manage to keep things moving. Besides some instrumental and vocal stuff, Act II includes ``Domestication of Animals,'' during which the fate of sculptured balloon creatures illustrates Penn's sardonic conservation message. Teller articulates the uncanny perceptions of the sci-fi MOFO, ``the psychic gorilla,'' and snips a rose in silhouette. ``How We Met'' is a handcuff escape act in which Penn's monologue suggests a touch of early Edward Albee.

If Penn and Teller don't always appreciate that brevity is the soul of wit, they understand the uses of incongruity in the comic art. Their magic show with a college education merits a PhD, or at least a master's. In matters of higher learning and showmanship, why quibble over degrees? The production has minimal scenery by John Lee Beatty, magical lighting by Dennis Parichy, and supervision by Art Wolff.

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