Sunday, September 20, 2020
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You Can’t Teach an Old Duo New Tricks


Irreverent entertainers Penn and Teller brought a flawless, peerless magic

show to Hard Rock Live in Hollywood over the weekend. In the duo’s 90-minute set of hits, the only applicable complaint is that they were too polished, resulting in a set of tricks that have been honed over the decades, leaving Penn and Teller’s most hardcore devotees with a sense of de ja vu. Fans have long seen Teller swallow needles; no one would expect a stand-up comedian to tell the same jokes he did 10 years ago, so why don’t the same rules apply to magicians?

Still, as an introduction to Penn and Teller’s unbelievable sleight-of-hand trickery, astonishing imagination and caustic wit (“You almost gave this old atheist some religion!” Penn cries, when an audience member “throws” a knife inches from his member), this weekend’s concerts were a gold mine.

Teller made coins and goldfish appear out of nowhere and telepathically wilted a flower; Penn made a woman levitate, breathed fire and manipulated a nail gun into firing nails only into a board and not into his hand. Together, they tore up a newspaper and reassembled it in the blink of an eye, while telling jokes about the day’s headlines. Teller silently went about his work with the ascetic quality of a monk-turned-mime, while Penn never shut up, loquaciously reciting inside-magic monologues that, like much of the act itself, probably date at least 10 years.

However, this sense of illusion deconstruction, so unique to Penn and Teller’s act, is also its most brilliant illusion in and of itself. They have mastered magic’s time-honored techniques so thoroughly that they can wow us while telling us how they are wowing us. Supposedly revealing their tricks as they hoodwink us further and deeper, Penn and Teller make for simultaneously the most trustworthy and unreliable narrators of their craft in the business. And that, rather than seeing Teller swallow needles for the umpteenth time, is what keeps their show so intriguing.