Play Dead (Play 2011)

Play Dead (2012)Reviewed by André de Lorde

Starring Todd Robbins

Written by Teller and Todd Robbins

Directed by Teller

Walking into New York’s miniature Players Theater, its stage stacked high with boxes emblazoned with names such as H.H. Holmes and Albert Fish, is the first pre-show sign that fans of the morbid and grotesque are in for a show unlike anything found in the mammoth theaters that line Broadway. Rather, Play Dead is a wholly different beast altogether – a modern retelling of the classic Americana “spookshow”: one part audience participation, one part magic act, and one part Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Teller (of “Penn and Teller” fame) co-writes and directs this pleasantly tongue-in-cheek romp, in which magician and carnival performer Todd Robbins – playing a lightbulb-chomping caricature of himself – leads his (literally) captive audience on a journey through the boxes piled high around him, occasionally stopping to lure an uneasy patron or two onto the stage for an additional scare.

Unjustly billed as a supernatural magic show by a number of New York and Las Vegas critics (where it debuted), Play Dead never stoops to a “How did they do it?” gimmick, but rather treats the occasional gasp-inducing illusion as reality – and quickly whisks us into the show’s next segment without so much as a self-aware wink.

The show begins in complete darkness and returns there several times during the show. During these black as pitch sequences – in which you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face – Robbins barks out a mixture of campy and creepy prose, keeping his audience trembling with nervous laughter and the occasional scream… because, like any good time in the dark, you’re not as alone as you think you are.

During one such blacked-out sequence, a glowing spectral horn dances above the crowd, transparent spirits fly overhead, and incandescent orbs rocket through the theater at lightning speed. The effects are top-notch and literally jaw-dropping – and even Play Dead’s regular audience of raucous 20- and 30-somethings nervously swallow their pride and watch, slack-jawed, as the spirit world seems to momentarily come alive in the complete darkness around them.

At numerous later points the audience is pelted with a variety of substances in the dark, which, while seemingly effective on perpetually uneasy audience members, does become somewhat tiresome. A sequence in which Robbins asks several “random” audience members about dead family members (which his spirits are now supposedly in contact with) also languishes, and those unamused by John Edward’s similarly groan-inducing “Crossing Over” will soon find themselves hoping for more visual trickery and less “I’m sensing someone named…

Those very few gripes aside, Play Dead is an absolutely riveting 90 minutes of Grand Guignol theater. It combines the very best of the American spookshow tradition, openly embraces its chills and cheese, and gives modern audiences the unique opportunity to step back in time and experience an event unseen in decades of theater.

By the time Robbins’ final subtle effect leaves the theater again embraced in cold darkness, gallons of gore have been spilled, the thin veil between the realms of the living and the dead have been lifted, and the audience – at least on this particular night – had run the gamut of emotions, leaving the intimate 250-seat theater laughing and trembling.

East Coast fans of the horrific, morbid, and arcane would do themselves a grave disservice by missing Teller and Todd Robbins’ Play Dead. An affordably priced must-see, it’s truly unlike anything that has graced the stage in ages.

Play Dead – at NYC’s Players Theater – runs Tuesday to Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 7PM and 10PM, and Sunday at 3PM and 7PM. Play Dead contains graphic violence and nudity and is intended for adult audiences. Tickets are available here!

4 out of 5

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Andre de Lorde