At lunch the next day at Orso's, Penn and Teller took turns explaining their funny, hard-headed, eagle-eyed, no-nonsense pragmatism, which, they say, has a source in the novels and plays of Samuel Beckett. Indeed, in an odd way Penn and Teller could be stand- ins for Beckett's eloquent tramps Gogo and Didi. Penn, 31, is from Greenfield, Massachusetts. He's big, bluff, and inordinately proud of his frizzed hair (pony-tailed with a dust ball feathering the center of his forehead) and his polished nails (nine clear- coated, the middle nail on his left hand glossy red). His full name is Penn Jillette. Teller, small, precise, claims only the name Teller, says he's legally listed that way, that all his credit cards and checks are so signed. In fact, in Philadelphia 38 years ago, he was christened Raymond Joseph Teller. Penn says he dropped out of high school and was a dishwasher at HoJo's on the Mohawk Trail. Teller graduated from Amherst as a classics major and taught Latin in Trenton, New Jersey, for six years.
Teller supplies contrast. Through most of the show he plays being mute, waging slyly silent innocence against the frontal attack of Penn's sophistication on just about everything (from poetry to science, the Pleistocene to performance art). He's a straw caught in Penn's hurricane. Not unlike Harpo spinning inside the chaos created by his manic brothers, Teller exhibits an awe-struck sensibility, as if the flaw of his silence is no match for Penn's inspired existentialism. It helps that Teller resembles Harpo. At first it seems as if eye-popping deference is all he has to offer. Not so,because, in parlor-trick parlance, "Now you see it, now you don't" (or, as Penn puts it, "Because it's here but it isn't"). There are times when Teller's silence says more than Penn's howling. If Penn is the barker who seems to be in control of the evening's philosophical vaudeville, Teller is the hesitant little clown who has lived it all and kept his mouth shut. Offstage he speaks in a quiet, even, tutelar tone. He doesn't make outrageous suggestions, draw eccentric parallels. His insights are clear but lack Penn's flash. He's riveted by Penn's complex mind. But, in effect, the two are on the same wavelength, each mentally stimulated by the other.
Penn & Teller' s Westside Arts Playbill is a strike-off from the cover of the Grove Press 1954 paperback edition of Waiting for Godot: The shadowy figures of Gogo and [Didi], hand in hand, walking across a sere landscape are rather oddly implied in a flat silhouette of Penn and Teller, handcuffed together, with Penn looming over his partner and howling down at him. The silhouette has further reference to Beckett: Penn bullying Teller translates into Pozzo, the Master, lashing Lucky, the Servant, through Godot' s bleak comedy. Most of these suggestions are skewered by Penn and Teller's offstage relationship, in which they are commanding equals, Master and Master. Penn Jillette seems to have consciously constructed his grungy, no-socks-in-foul- weather, ill-educated personality both to confuse the issue and to draw intimate parallels from paradox -- just the way Penn & Teller does in the theater, just the way Penn and Teller do in real life. Taxiing away from lunch, I glance at the note Penn flashed at the waiter when the waiter apologized that one of Orso's Daily Specials had not been available. The note read: "The Hawk Flys at Midnight." [Adam] would have been awe- struck, all over again.