Penn & Teller start their new show with a bang and a refrigerator

November 06, 1990|By Lawrence DeVine | Lawrence DeVine,Knight-Ridder

How to tell the difference between Penn and Teller: Penn is taller and Teller is paler. In public, Penn is talky and Teller is . . .

"Excuse me, Teller is very pale, he is a bit paler than I. Neither one of us has ever been in the sun. Right now we are in a room with no windows, rehearsing the 'Penn & Teller Refrigerator Tour.' It is a schoolroom, like Michigan architects design to drive little children crazy . . . They graduate and they never have seen the sun. . . .

"Am I surprised when people ask me why our tour is called the 'Refrigerator Tour'? No. It almost seems like the name was designed for people to ask us that. Doesn't it? We open, two guys sitting underneath a big refrigerator hanging up there, and we open by dropping the refrigerator.

"Teller," continued Penn, who is two laps ahead of the interviewer by now, "is very pale. He could be dead and his complexion wouldn't give it away."

Even in a sentimental mood, said Penn the tall, he would not miss his partner of 16 years. "Teller is completely vestigial. Probably 10 years ago he had his place. But soon it will be 'Penn on Tour' or 'Penn, the Refrigerator and Pale Dead Partner.'"

Penn (whose last name is Jillette) then made the fatal mistake. He paused for breath for the first time on the telephone since saying "Hi, I'm Penn. This is Frank Rich, right?"

Waiting, he was advised, was an audience for the magical, comical, tragic team of Penn & Teller, cut-ups to the stars, heroes of 1,001 nights (or four or five anyway) of the post-midnight terra incognita David Letterman show, a Broadway show of their own, and several other public appearances in which the malevolent pair did things like levitate Martin Mull, a stage moment involving an electric chair and what they call "the stigmata bit."

The new "Penn & Teller Refrigerator Tour" continues Friday and Saturday at the Lyric Opera House as part of a five-month tour that includes Detroit, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston. "The big time," said Penn, all the while maintaining that Teller, who never speaks onstage, actually does not know how to talk -- in English, at least.

"Are you sure you're not Frank Rich?" he said, suggesting he had been set up for an interview with the New York Times drama critic. "That's OK if you're not."

After some 16 years of appearing around network television, Broadway, country Renaissance fairs and seances in which they would come to your home, Penn Jillette and single-named Teller have this new show. Penn, who is 6 feet 6, comes onstage with the silent Teller, who is 5 feet 9 ("and pale, don't forget pale") . . .

". . . and you just gotta picture the possibilities when you have two guys sitting on stage under a blanket with a refrigerator hanging directly over their heads," said a new voice that sounded very human, very educated, in what unmistakably was English.

"We wanted to start the show with a bang," said Teller, who speaks with the calm demeanor of a person involved in funeral goods.

"I do speak," said Teller, who is shorter. "But not on stage."

Penn said Teller is one of only four people in the world who have been issued a passport with only one name on it. "I don't know what he knows about that," said Teller, whose comic bit is to discuss Penn with the same hostile wariness with which Penn discusses him.

"I do have only one name on my passport, as well as on my driver's license." A slick magazine once alleged that Teller's first name was the fairly prosaic Raymond. "I-ay-ay-ay," said Teller, as if he were going into a trance, "think that information has, sort of, slipped through the cracks . . . ."

Some of the rock 'n' roll magical-comical-cynical routines that made the pair famous are missing from the new show, Penn said. That means the bit in which Teller is in the water tank, about to drown, or the one in which Teller is hanged upside down in a straitjacket over a bed of vertical railroad spikes and has to get out before Penn finishes reciting "Casey at the Bat" and stands up, releasing a wire that will drop the pale Teller head down onto the railroad spikes.

What will be included is a new trick, Teller said, "what is called 'box jumping,' the trick where you put a person in a box, turn the box over, take it apart and she's gone. In this show, we're doing it with clear plastic boxes!"

That is part of the P&T art, debunking old tricks, often showing an audience how a famous magic trick works. On Letterman's show, they sawed Teller in half, but they added a saw slice through the lower-level, hidden compartment into which the "victim" regularly sags his rear end in order to look shorter. Fake blood squirted about the stage.

"Our act is looking death in the face and saying [bleep bleep]," said Penn. "We laugh, get your hearts pumping. It's that quality where two human beings can create the illusion of death and still be alive and wonderful.

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