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Penn & Teller: Tricks, gags, laughs, jazz

19 January 2009

By Joe Brown, Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Now that nerds officially rule, and our brainy new president is stocking the White House with similarly intelligent, curious and articulate people, the time has surely come to appoint Penn & Teller as Magicians of State.

Superlatives are stupid and superfluous here: Penn & Teller's long-running act at the Rio isn't the funniest or sexiest or most spectacular show on the Strip. But it's not a stretch to describe the duo as Las Vegas' most reliable self-renewing natural resource.

Friends, partners and former high school pariahs since 1975, Penn Jillette and Teller (he legally dropped the "Raymond") have turned a shared obsession with such bully-baiting subjects as magic and juggling into a flourishing career, the past six years of which have been happily spent in Las Vegas. The common thread in their hit Broadway show, practical tricks video ("Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends"), feature film ("Penn & Teller Get Killed"), Showtime TV series ("Penn & Teller: Bullshit!") and Vegas headliner residency is a razor-sharp skepticism and an aggressive focus on the technology of lying.

They want us to look beyond the hocus-pocus, to get hip to the big swindle, from psychics (occasional Strip headliners Sylvia Browne and John Edward are named with scorn) to miracle-promising preachers.

In an interview 20 years ago, Penn told me, "We hope people will think, 'If these guys can pull something off on this level, imagine what the politicians are getting away with.'?"

In other words, just because you've seen it, doesn't mean you have to believe it.

They've got the sleight stuff, but it would be understatement to tag Penn & Teller as a "magic act" or "comedians." And although they gleefully flout the first rule of magic — don't give away the trick — it would be uncool to recount just what goes on in their fast-moving show, which varies from night to night, anyway.

Suffice it to say that it's all satisfyingly cerebral and dangerously funny: Some disenchanted evening may find them playing with fire and knives, another with guns (including laser-sighted Colt .357s and a hydraulic nail gun) and a buzz saw. And when they nod to traditional magic — the ancient cups-and-balls routine, for instance — they do it in singularly Penn & Teller style, with transparent plastic cups.

This being Vegas, there's even a soupçon of sex: In one wordless vignette, Penn is seen on a hot date with a leggy blonde, sharing a cigarette and flutes of gasoline.

As you enter the snazzy 1,450-seat Penn & Teller Theatre, you'll notice people clustered on the stage. It looks like a preshow cocktail party, but it turns out every ticket-holder is invited to sign a sheet of paper.

Which means that by the time the show begins, nearly everyone in the audience has been onstage. Which is good, because not only does it give the already-seated people something to watch, but Penn & Teller's show involves lots of audience participation. Although P&T are gleefully cruel to each other, they always make their audience volunteers (and reluctant semi-volunteers) look good. Before you even have time to shrink down in your seat or get that please don't pick me look in your eyes, Penn is prowling the aisles for prey. If you're called to serve, just go with it. You won't regret it.

An unholy hybrid of Elmer Gantry, an auctioneer and an infomercial pitchman, the garrulous Penn, braided ponytail down his back, is a master of patter in an incessant ashtray rumble.

Somehow impish and baleful, resembling a debauched cherub, Penn's famously slight and silent partner Teller is a master of deception, and his solo spots provide the show's most macabre moments.

Attention must be paid to onstage pianist Mike Jones, who before the show not only invites the audience onstage in a droll whisper, but is also one of the unsung instrumental magicians in jazz. The guy in the slouchy hat improvising on stand-up bass next to Jones is Penn Jillette himself (Teller steps in briefly on vibes). If you appreciate good music, this is like an extra Vegas show for free.

So, barring an ambassadorial appointment to the Magic Kingdom or Narnia, Penn & Teller will stay on, making Las Vegas the unofficial West Coast capital of the first nerd administration.

"Society needs nerds," Teller told me in that 20-year-old interview (yes, offstage he has plenty to say). "They run it. Otherwise it would be run by people who play sports. Or use sports analogies in their speeches."

P.S.: I just won a bet: I got through this whole review without mentioning Criss Angel!

If you go

What: Penn & Teller

When: 9 p.m. Saturday through Thursday (dark Friday)

Where: Penn & Teller Theatre at the Rio

Admission: $75 and $85; 777-7776,

Running time: About 90 minutes

Audience advisory: Frank language, faux gore, explosions, shattered illusions, improvisational piano jazz

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.


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