Teller and Todd Robbins Play Dead at The Players Theatre, New York City
“Better than Mary Poppins, but not as creepy.”
That’s how Todd Robbins asks audience members to describe the spectacle they had just witnessed at the end of Play Dead, the new stage fright-fest written and directed by the smaller, quieter half of Penn & Teller.
Indeed, although there is an ethereal elegance that runs throughout the play, it is very much the uncertainty…the shock and surprise that keeps the audience trembling with both fear and joy. Todd Robbins, the post-modern master of sideshow, challenges the trust of everyone in attendance as he tells tales of true murder and horror, raising them from the grave and threatening audience members that they may take their place.
But let us let the man himself explain it…without giving away the greatest goodies.
The show delivers, striking the audience in both blunt and more subtle ways. For even the least skeptical person in attendance, there must still be some certainty that the performers will not truly harm the paying public. However, as lights dim and Todd Robbins’ lips creak into a mischevous smile…there is some primal, instinctual fear that still grabs hold of even the most skeptical.
Of more immediate concern is the extreme uncertainty of how your fellow audience members will react when thrown into simulated chaos. Will random acts of violence take place in the dark as some unknown entity, come from off the street, has his or her more violent tendencies given a venue that blurs reality with the imaginary just as his or her mind always has.
Luckily, I survived my visit without such incident. And in fact, most of the joy I experience at the performance came not only from my own pounding heart, but from sharing in the laughter and screams of everyone else in attendance.
The play was nicely layered, for the most part, offering chills, thrills, and thoughts in different ways for all the distinct members of the audience. My only complaint is a series of moments that seemed to come more from Penn & Teller’s more blunt offerings on Bullshit. While you can very much sense some of the same elegant rhythm and style of the dialog from one of Penn & Teller’s magic shows, the tenor of the night very much simply surrounds the supernatural and the rush of life that only fear can bring you. This is somewhat clumsily interrupted in a few segments that noncommittally moralize about the horrors of gold-digging psychics and the sham of cold-readings. While I love such skeptical investigations on Bullshit, in Play Dead it is neither here nor there, not only breaking the flow of the show, but also failing to present a strong and clear moral argument against cold-reading, failing also to reveal the method behind the madness as clinically as it deserves.
While I was somewhat derailed by this softcore skeptical tangent, I found myself more obviously engaged than I ever have been at any other play where I am supposed to be amazed at the whining lives of two or three people having relationship problems around a small wooden table. In Play Dead, you are necessarily emotionally invested, on the edge of your seat and on the very edge of fear, an risky entertainment that you are only JUST certain you will survive, red-hot blood surging through your body for fear of spilling onto the ground before you and making the life you still hold all the richer and more strongly lived.