- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

Three and 1/2 out of four stars

WHAT: Penn & Teller

WHERE: Warner Theatre, 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

WHEN: Through Dec. 31

TICKETS: $26.50 to $46.50

PHONE: 202/432-SEAT

It must be hard to walk onstage with the expectations Penn & Teller bring with them like so many novelty props.

The magical duo, on the scene for a quarter of a century, have made their mark performing one outlandish routine atop another, all in their coal-black brand of humor.

Their opening-night performance Tuesday at the Warner Theatre proved that not only are they prepared to keep on astounding, but they don't mind settling back for a few simple card tricks to keep audiences engaged.

The pair emerge from the backstage area in inflated balloon suits painted with caricatures of their now familiar personas. Mr. Jillette's Eveready-powered mouth is frozen agape, while a sly smile marks Mr. Teller's cartoon countenance.

The show's earliest moments evoke the religion of Mr. Teller, a spoof on both their enduring road show and televangelists everywhere.

Mr. Jillette jokes in his craggy rasp that the transformation from magician to preacher is "a lateral move that requires many of the same skills."

The sketch sounds better on paper, but the premise is abandoned quickly in favor of their traditional tricks.

The religious motif ties into one of the show's first, and least impressive, bits. The pair snip a long sheath of polyester fabric in two, than magically "sew" it back together again and again.

Coming from any other magician's bag of tricks, the routine might have impressed, but these two can do better.

In short order, they do.

Mr. Jillette, a hulking stage presence with a rapid-fire tongue, is a magical trick on his own. His verbal deluge, at once sardonic and literate, never stops. Ever.

His references to Siegfried and Roy, Elvis and Houdini fly by so fast you keep punching at the imaginary rewind button on your armrest.

His delivery makes Mr. Teller's lack of speech all the more engaging.

If all Mr. Teller did were to remain silent, his presence would be refreshing. But the magical answer to Harpo Marx performs a number of deft tricks. A silly, inspired shadow-puppet routine is pure bliss, and his sly stage movements remind one of a vaudevillian's stealthy gait.

A gag involving an audience member staring down a knife-throwing Mr. Jillette involves little magic but works all the same. Here, as with a few of the bits, the setup takes a bit too long, letting Mr. Jillette pontificate at will.

Part of Penn & Teller's shtick involves puncturing the myths surrounding the magical arts. When Mr. Jillette wraps a glittering pink vest around his meaty torso, it's to rib his fellow magicians, not to honor them.

While the pair mock much of what is considered sacred in magic, they simultaneously embrace their profession. Watching Mr. Jillette perform a series of small-scale but impressive card tricks reveals his true feeling for his craft. Take away the crafty props and occasional faux bloodletting, and the comic's passion for prestidigitation is clear.

Later, he smashes, then juggles, a trio of liquor bottles, their unequal weights and jagged edges lending a sense of danger to the stunt.

Much of the duo's appeal relies on that danger, that feeling that even these accomplished magicians aren't in complete control. It's a sham, one they would be the first to admit. Yet that gnawing sensation remains through parts of the show, particularly for the magic-bullet trick that caps the performance with an appropriate bang.

The show's playbill features a Penn & Teller career time line, a rambling trip through all their media gigs. The list drags on for several pages in small, uninterrupted type.

It's a testament to their craft that even after all that exposure, from appearances with David Letterman to feature film work, their stunts still can surprise and even inspire that too-familiar gurgling in the stomach.

That's no sleight of hand. That's talent.

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