PREVIOUSLY, July 10: Penn & Teller have taken a break from Las Vegas and car commercials for a six-week run at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre, and welcome home. It’s been a 15-year dry spell without them, and since a spell is what the Mutt & Jeff of magicians cast, the term seems right. Accompanied by pianist extraordinaire Mike Jones and comely, long-stemmed assistant Georgie Bernasek, the duo perform a retrospective of their greatest hits along with the engaging patter of semi-debunking by Penn Jillette that is as much their trademark as the prestidigitational skills and audience participation that have been ticket bait since their first New York show off-Broadway back in 1985.
So here are traditional tricks like pulling a live rabbit out of a hat, and cutting a bolt of cloth that somehow manages to stay in one piece — even when wound around the neck of an increasingly wary 10-year-old — gilded with meta-magical mumbling about how it’s all a ruse, we know it’s a trick even if we can’t figure it out, and they, Penn & Teller, are above ever using their work to defraud or dupe the paying customers. At one point, Teller seems to have hypnotized a big red ball, which he has follow him around, jump through a hoop and roll along a platform, even hanging off the edge without falling to the stage — until Penn comes along with scissors to snip the thread we cannot see.
You may have seen a woman cut in half in countless other acts (that old saw), but probably not with a circular blade several feet in diameter and certainly not with such horror-movie effects as we’re shown here. The fact that the carnage comes after we’ve been shown how the trick is done makes it all the more entertaining. And if you can tell me how Teller swallows 100 needles and then pulls them from his mouth all strung on a single thread, well, the truth is, I really don’t want to know. One need not suspend disbelief to be caught up in the magic of this magic. A healthy skepticism is one of the elements Penn & Teller expertly weave into the act and part of what makes their brand of hucksterism such a summer tonic.
Speaking of sleight of hand, that’s what Patti LuPone demonstrated the other evening during a performance of Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows For Days at Lincoln Center Theater. Everyone talks about the plague of cell phones going off during performances, but few have a history of taking matters into their own hands as distinctively as La LuPone, a one-woman crusader on behalf of audience decorum. Critics must be the only ones who come close to actors in lamenting the tyranny of the mobile phone that makes other annoyances — crinkling, coughing, crunching, catnapping — pale in comparison. When a customer in the front row at the Mitzi Newhouse spent the performance texting and texting and texting, LuPone used a moment near the apron of the stage to swipe the instrument out of the offender’s hands and hand it off to the stage manager (apparently returning it after the show, an act of largesse I probably would have committed only after wiping out all the contacts and iTunes).
I don’t think pre-curtain announcements and mumbling ushers really help, and perhaps nothing will. But the most effective campaign against such intrusions that I’ve seen came at the beginning of The River, the Jez Butterworth play starring Hugh Jackman last season at Circle in The Square. A house manager took to the stage, held out her phone and asked everyone in the audience to take out theirs and turn them off in a joint exercise. I’m sure it wasn’t completely effective at every performance, but it was one of the few evenings I’ve had in recent memory in which not a single ring tone was heard.
The press has made much of the LuPone incident as well as one earlier this week, when an audience member at Hand To God climbed onto the stage of the Booth Theatre and plugged his phone charger into what was of course a stage socket on the set. It may or may not have been a stunt orchestrated by producer Kevin McCollum to generate publicity for his terrific yet customer-challenged show (as with Penn & Teller, I don’t really care what the truth is; the illusion works just fine for me). The self-admitted phone charger, Nick Silvestri of Seaford Long Island, issued an apology today, claiming he’d had a few drinks, doesn’t go to plays much, noticed his battery was low and aimed for the nearest socket. “I’ve learned a lot about the theater in the past few days – theater people are really passionate and have been very willing to educate me,” he said, in a statement released by the show’s publicist. “I can assure you that I won’t be setting foot on a stage ever again, unless I decide to become an actor…if I want to give one message to folks out there it’s that you should give your complete attention to the actors on stage. You can make phone calls and send text messages all day long, so when you’re in the theater for a couple hours, just put the phones away and enjoy the show. Once again, I’m sorry for my actions, and I hope that I can become an example of a great theatergoer in the future.”
But I’m more intrigued by the response of my friend and colleague Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune, who, after a couple of verbal hairpin turns on the subject had this to say: “If the arts are serious about catering to the needs of their customers, and if they wish to break down as many of those old barriers as possible, they are going to have to install charging stations in their lobbies or beneath their seats.” I think Chris meant this as a Swiftian joke to further illustrate the seeming impossibility of solving this problem. But I’m not so sure, and maybe, as with Penn & Teller, I kinda don’t want to know…