Penn & Teller are back in New York City you should go see them if you can. Penn & Teller on Broadway runs through August 16 at the Marquis Theatre.
I don’t know when exactly I became a die-hard Penn & Teller fan but it was at some point in the 1980s when they appeared on television often and were always funny a way that was smarter and with more of an edge than any other act around. Maybe when they appeared on the first Comic Relief show and they did a juggling act that involved them smoking at a time when the anti-smoking movement was getting stronger. “We don’t endorse smoking unless you want to look cool,” Penn said.
What’s more, they were a magic act that allegedly earned the hatred of most magic acts. They showed you how they did their tricks, until doing it in a way that forced you rethink everything. They don’t claim to have magic powers and they don’t use melodramatic music or ridiculous flourishes. They say they are going to fool you and then that’s what they do. While a lot of magic acts try to play up attachments to the supernatural, Penn & Teller are brutally honest with their audience. They also have a great sense of humor and even when you get fooled in a big way, it’s a thrill to see how they work and manipulate an audience. They are marvelously irreverent in ways that will make you happy to be a curmudgeon.
Before they moved to Las Vegas where they have their long-term residency, the duo was in New York. Penn Jillette would meet at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square with anyone who wanted to have dinner and a movie with him.
I first saw them live in New York during a rare series of shows in the early summer of 2000. It was at the Beacon Theater and I sat in front of Al Goldstein and felt like a high roller for it. Andy Richter was in the audience too. New York City’s absurd and unfairly restrictive gun laws meant that they couldn’t do their famous bullet-catching trick, so they did a freedom-themed trick where they made it look like they were burning an American flag, only to have it appear unscathed on a flag pole on stage.
I saw them in New York again in 2009 at the Gramercy Theater in a special event called “35 Years of Magic and Bullshit.” It was the only time I’ve ever seen Teller speak on stage as himself as part of the show. The two performed a few tricks, including testing out a few new ones, but mostly were interviewed by a fellow magician and took questions from the audience.
At one point the host asked, “If you didn’t succeed with Penn & Teller, where would you be today?”
“I would still be a Latin teacher,” said Teller.
“I would be in prison,” said Penn.
I got to see them in Las Vegas when I went in 2011—I made sure to get my tickets to their show as soon as I had the flight booked. Vegas without seeing Penn & Teller would have been a big waste. The show rocked.
Penn & Teller meet after the show with anyone who wants a photo or autograph. Teller does talk when you meet him in person. It is rare to see them perform in New York City. Don’t miss out.
New York is the best place in the world to see theater in the English speaking world. You’d have to go to London to come close to what New York has to offer in terms of plays being produced. Chicago has a thriving theater scene, but it still doesn’t compare to New York’s.
The one problem with New York’s theatrical offerings is that there is so much good stuff to see that it’s impossible to see even a fraction of the worthwhile productions, and inevitably stuff gets lost in the shuffle.
I had no idea that a well-renowned production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was coming to New York until I read a review of it in The New York Times. The production was brought over from Chicago and stars Nathan Lane in the lead role of Hickey and Brian Dennehy as Larry. The play was scheduled for a very limited run, from Feb. 5 to March 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
I scrambled to get tickets online and managed to get a couple for last Thursday night.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is located in downtown Brooklyn, an area that straddles the line between old-school ghetto and clueless gentrification. There are check cashing storefronts and other run-down areas not far from these stages. And BAM is not one theater but several and it’s easy to go to the wrong place (or in my case two wrong places) if you haven’t been there before.
But once I found the theater everything went smoothly. The BAM Harvey Theater lacks the upscale decorative charm of many of the Broadway theaters but it is otherwise audience friendly. Unlike your average Broadway show, the BAM audience is mostly New York City residents who know basic theater etiquette (I counted only one cell phone going off during the production).
And this production of The Iceman Cometh lives up to the hype. Nathan Lane, who is more of a well-known comic actor, makes a great Hickey. Because the characters he often plays on TV and in movies are so jovial, it puts an added barb to the soul-crushing dialogue and dark personality of his character.
Brian Dennehy’s Larry Slade broods over each act perfectly as well. And the rest of the cast, especially Stephen Ouimette as Harry Hope and James Harms as Jimmy Tomorrow, bring O’Neill’s words to life with gut-wrenching performances.
The play is about five hours long and has three intermissions, but the time passed by easily. When you’re watching a play done that well, you can lose yourself and don’t mind.
The Iceman Cometh resonates very well with audiences because everyone has some part of themselves that’s doubtful, unfulfilled and wanting. No one escapes self-doubt and no one has avoided procrastination and self-pity, though we’d like to think we do. Everyone has a problem facing harsh truths about their own lives, no matter how good your life may be.
Iceman works so well because just about every one of us has been that drunk at the bar, high on liquid courage and doubtless in dreams that we would never see through. Everyone has engaged in self-delusion at some point in their lives, everyone has something in their past that they’re ashamed of. O’Neill’s Hickey knocks the wind out of our sails with his quest to bring us peace by giving up our pipe dreams.
Art this good is always worth the investment of time. If you have a chance to see The Iceman Cometh, go see it.