Penn Jillette's voice is as pushy and gravelly as a used car dealer's on a commercial. With a swagger, he teases the audience, "When you hear the word magician, you picture some greasy guy in a tuxedo...or an aging hippy stuffing women into boxes."
The audience explodes with laughter, partly because the two images are apt, partly because Penn and Teller seem so far from the Central Casting idea of magicians. Penn is tall and stocky. He might seem like a gangly farmboy if it weren't for the shock of hair jetting out of his forehead, as if lightning once struck there. Teller, his nearly silent partner, is elfish and so calm about everything it makes you nervous. He has a deadpan and double-takes Jack Benny might have admired.
If they don't fit any conventional image of magicians it's because they're not. They're magicians for a time like ours, which is skeptical of magic and suspicious of anything old-fashioned.
We wouldn't buy guys in tuxes. I've never bought the aging hippie who has done a few magic shows on Broadway because his tricks are so elaborate they require precision engineering.
Penn and Teller, on the other hand, are so funny they could succeed as standup comics. Some of their tricks are spectacular (Teller, for example, swallowing first some needles, then a long piece of thread, then drawing it out as if the thread had somehow found its way through the eyes of dozens of needles). Even simple card tricks are enlivened by their dark, hip humor.
Most incredible, at the end of the evening Penn swallows fire. He talks about going to side shows a as a child, and the mood he creates is as intense as a Garrison Keillor nostalgia piece. He also fills the theater with an air of mystery so thick an old guy in a tux or a cape might have done it.
For two cool guys to fill an equally cool audience with childlike wonder is magic indeed.
"You're in our tent now, so it's OK."
We don't get the word from Penn Jillette until the very end of "Penn & Teller," the quirky comedy-magic show that's back on Broadway at The Ritz for the holiday season. But it's clear the audience has been in their tent - and in the palm of their hand - from the very start.
Unlike the magicians most of us grew up on (characterized by Penn, with cheery vitriol, as aging hippies and greasy guys in tuxes), this popular duo has built a career on the startlingly original premise of showing people the reality behind magic acts and sideshow tricks. That philosophy is also a gimmick, calculated to appeal to the cool and cynical customers of this New Age of scientific rationalism. But boy, does it ever work!
When Penn & Teller are being antic, that means doing the old "cups and balls" routine with plastic cups, so the audience can see how it works. When they want to get serious, Penn will squat down on the stage and quietly explain the technique of fire-eating and the interior commitment of the fire-eater.
If Penn (the tall, funny-looking one who talks a mile a minute) makes the routines funny - by yelling at Mofo the Psychic Gorilla, of fumbling a card trick while his partner his holding his breath in a tank of water - it's Teller (the short, droll master of comic silence) who makes them theatrical. A handcuff routine he pulls on Penn has the poignancy of a one-minute tragedy. Another, in which he pulls off the petals of a flower until it bleeds, is an elegant piece of pure performance art.
A few of the longer, elaborate routines seem contrived: A Bible-reading business does drag on, and the "domestication of animals" is too cute. But we'll wait in line any time to catch Teller swallowing his 100 embroidery needles (which come out threaded), or to listen to Penn's heartfelt defense of the "self-made freaks" with whom he clearly identifies.
For more than a decade Penn & Teller, ''two eccentric guys who have learned to do a few cool things,'' as they like to say, have been refining their own curious exhibition of comedy, magic and menace. Now their show is back in New York - on Broadway no less, in the Ritz Theater at 219 West 48th Street.
Certainly the new show bears more than passing resemblance to the entertainment that ran Off Broadway for 22 months. What has fallen away from this production are some of the extraneous elements that most obviously evoked the team's vaudeville roots during their long years on the road performing at colleges, clubs and ''renaissance faires.'' Trimmed from the old show, for example, are the solo segments when Mr. Teller pulled coins from the air and Mr. Jillette displayed his considerable juggling skills.
What remains is the purest distillation to date of that unclassifiable, subtle and ironic entertainment genre that Penn & Teller define, immodestly, as ''Penn & Teller.'' It is a mix of surprise, dark humor ''and the tension of us playing with fire,'' according to Teller, the silent, diminutive, lovable one who has but one name.
The new show has been restaged to successfully preserve in a 942-seat house the sense of intimacy that obtained Off Broadway. The show's lighting, too, has cleverly enhanced the low-rent ordinariness of the Penn & Teller props, emphasizing the happy incongrousness of their leap to the Great White Way.
The new elements in this show - like Teller's drowning in a water tank - exploit the paradoxes of magic and macabre wit. Although there is clearly sadomasochism in the victimization of Mr. Teller, ''there is also trust,'' Penn Jillette (the large, verbal, abrasive one) believes.
He feels that for the audience, the ever-present question is not, ''Is the big guy gonna hurt Teller?'' but rather, he said, ''how is the big guy not gonna hurt Teller?''