Penn & Teller have the only show in town with a jazz piano score. You can say “only” a lot when it comes to their offbeat act, but this qualifier is the one that sets the tone for the comic magicians and their place on the Strip nowadays.
Like the Mike Jones’ piano music that underscores it, the show is at once complex and high-minded, but also loose and informal. Audiences come to see two guys in their 50s do a well-established routine, but one that mixes new stuff with greatest hits in a seemingly random shuffle. There’s no big production or drama, at least not before a finale that trots out handguns.
Penn Jillette just ambles out at the beginning, assuming you probably know who he is by now. And if you don’t, the fact that he barely acknowledges that his single-named partner Teller is standing there with some kind of concrete block over his head gives you a clue of what you’re in for.
Penn, the tall one, calls plastic Solo cups “petroleum byproducts.” He sets up his juggling of broken liquor bottles by riffing on “a cursory look at strict Darwinism” and life on the “earliest multicellular level.”
Teller, the short one, never speaks onstage, even when he doesn’t have a block over his head. Jillette chats up a woman from the audience and borrows her eyeglasses, complimenting her “ocular hygiene.” He finally gets around to shattering the block and it turns out Teller is wearing the eyeglasses. Pretty baffling trick, but one that takes its good sweet time in getting there.
The duo recently celebrated five years of using the Rio as their home base. With few interruptions to the live act, they’ve branched out to do everything from books to a popular Showtime series. All of them spread a unique sensibility that combines vaudeville-era show traditions with science-nerd humor and a dash of Libertarian politics.
A lot of ad slogans run along the lines of, “If you only see one show in Vegas, make it this one.” With Penn & Teller, it would be more accurate to say it should be your third or fourth, or the one you see because you know so much about showbiz conventions that you’re ready for the inside joke.
A running bit — or maybe it’s really the theme — is the narrative of Jillette telling you everything the two are going to do and why they’re doing it. You know he’s going to juggle the broken bottles if you’re “familiar with the standard narrative of the American variety act.”
When he does that, we as the audience know “I’m trying to make you feel special, which you’re not. It’s a show.”
This being a magic show, however, a lot of what they tell you is not what ultimately happens. The most overt example is when one audience recruit gets a complicated explanation of a knife-throwing stunt, while the rest of the audience can see the real bit is much simpler.
Such finesse can take time to perfect. Two newer segments aren’t completely clear when the dust settles on the payoff. Only wonderfully warped minds could conceive the “green-screen card trick,” where TV weatherman-style Chroma key technology is used to place different values on blank green playing cards. But the crowd seemed confused by the final twist.
Later, Jillette does a whole soap box section on the evils of spiritualists and mediums, accurately guessing jokes that two audience members were asked to randomly select from a book.
The message, he declares, is that all purported extrasensory powers are “without exception” tricks, and that “I know how to do them all.” But he only shows the audience that it can be done; he doesn’t spell out how it’s done, beyond the body language “tells” familiar to poker players.
The greatest hits ground the newer ventures with time-tested favorites, from Teller’s poetically mimed illusions to the final shootout, in which .357 slugs are purportedly swapped by firing mouth-to-mouth.
Five years in one theater has dulled the perspective on how much of a departure Penn & Teller were in the early days. Now they just keep doing what they do in their theater tucked in back of the property; like the jazz piano, never in, never out of style.MIKE WEATHERFORDMORE COLUMNS
who: Penn & Teller
when: 9 p.m. Saturdays-Thursdays (dark Monday through Nov. 2)
where: Rio, 3700 W. Flamingo Road
tickets: $85.80-$96.80 (777-7776)