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Cards and Tricksters

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Penn, the big, hostile, ponytailed blabbermouth, and Teller, the small, angelic, curly-headed mute, are back, performing live in Los Angeles for the first time in seven years. And they’ve got guns.

That line is stolen from the press release. Reviewing “Penn & Teller” poses the same problem as reviewing stand-up comedy. All you want to do is repeat their best lines. The duo that made magic hip will play the Wilshire Theatre for two weeks only.

And they do in fact have guns. In the simply titled show, “Penn & Teller,” the crowning trick includes two loud bangs, shattered glass and the distinctive smell of sulfur. But did they really shoot those two bullets into each other’s teeth?

Penn has already established that everything they do is trickery. “It’s very simple for me,” he explains. “I lie to you people like I breathe.” He even calls a 12-year-old audience volunteer “a credulous bastard.” But figure this one out. Teller selects two volunteers. Each volunteer writes his or her name on the head of a bullet. One stands with Penn and his .357 magnum, the other stands with Teller. A yellow line is drawn across the stage and no one may cross it. The bullets are loaded into apparently empty chambers. After bulletproof vests have been donned and a glass stand is placed in front of each of the shooters, Penn and Teller aim their guns at each other’s mouths. Bang. The glass is shattered, the defaced bullets have crossed the stage and entered the teeth of the opposing magician. How they do it, I couldn’t even begin to formulate a guess.

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But Penn and Teller have always been an act for people who don’t necessarily care about magic tricks or how they are done. The show is entertaining enough not to have magic in it at all.

In fact, some feats involve only hand-eye coordination and macho swagger. Penn juggles with torches, explaining why this trick is not nearly as dangerous as it looks. He demonstrates: You catch the wrong end, you drop the torch--not a big deal. He only performs it because he likes to scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater. So he switches to a more dangerous trick, in which he breaks the tops off of three different-sized liquor bottles, and he juggles them. But not before he spends an enormous amount of time explaining and demonstrating just exactly why this trick is so dangerous. His explanation continues into the juggling itself.

Teller does a very funny trick with a chipper-shredder and a deck of cards. He then brings out a cute white bunny rabbit, puts it in a paper bag, and throws the apparently moving bag in the chipper as well. The trick, of course, has a punch line, which does not involve showing us that the little bunny is alive and OK. That would be too obvious. Penn and Teller have trained us well, and we don’t need to see that bunny.

*

The show includes an odd but endearing musical tribute to Houdini, with Penn singing and playing bass while Teller escapes from bondage. My favorite moment is from the wonderful “Mofo the Psychic Gorilla” bit, in which Teller, like the Wizard of Oz, stands just offstage speaking through a mike as the voice of Mofo. You know this because every time he comes onstage, you can hear and see him carelessly throwing down the mike. A kid is chosen from the audience. Penn tells him to write a large number on a blank sheet of paper, keeping the child’s attention directed away from Mofo. Teller clunks down his microphone, trudges out as if he’s bored, takes a look at the kid’s number, goes back and announces the number in the authoritative voice of Mofo the Psychic Gorilla. It’s a thing of beauty.

* “Penn & Teller,” Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends April 5. $32-$42. (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours.


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