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Halloween scares up N.Y. theater projects

Shows aim to capitalize on seasonal fare

Halloween isn’t a fright fest just for Hollywood. In recent years, Gotham’s legit scene has seen its array of October spook-taculars grow so big, it’s almost scary.

The two biggest haunted house-style offerings, “Nightmare: Superstition” and “Blood Manor,” are joined by other selections ranging from a highly stylized version, called “Steampunk Haunted House,” to an eerie Euro outing in the temporarily empty building of the Goethe-Institut New York, “Hotel Savoy.”

The All Hallow’s Eve live-entertainment bonanza has become such an established idea that one thriller that just began previews, the illusion-filled tale “Play Dead” (from Todd Robbins and Teller, the silent half of the Penn & Teller magic duo) isn’t a Halloween show at all. The open-ended commercial production is capitalizing on the season to pull in preview auds ahead of its opening next month.

“We didn’t want to pigeonhole it as a Halloween show, but we still wanted to take advantage of the zeitgeist of the timing,” says producer Alan Schuster.

Hollywood has long targeted Halloween for its scare fare, although the dominance of the “Saw” franchise has helped push such pics beyond the October-holiday window. Nevertheless, the sequel to “Paranormal Activity” (which opened Oct. 22) is the seventh horror outing to hit screens this month.

In Gotham, the highest profile of the live scare-mongers — or at least the most omnipresent subway-ad campaign — belongs to “Nightmare,” now in its seventh year. The 2009 outing attracted some 40,000 visitors, according to creator Timothy Haskell.

It is also the one most likely to attract a theater crowd, thanks in part to a thematic throughline that changes for each edition. This year’s focus is superstitions; last year’s was vampires.

The annual event was first conceived as a legit-centric outing, with each room in the haunted house hosted by a different stage troupe.

“It started off with theatergoers,” says Haskell, who also has staged tongue-in-cheek legit versions of “Road House” and “Fatal Attraction.” “So we have a larger audience of people who would also go to a play.”

Haskell wouldn’t cop to an exact number for the capitalization costs of “Nightmare,” but with 35 actors and an elaborate physical environment, it’s safe to estimate a pricetag in the mid-six figures for a production that runs only about a month.

Ticket prices range from a $15 student admission up to a $100 VIP ducat. Auds are ushered through the house’s rooms in groups as large as a dozen.

The major competish for “Nightmare” is “Blood Manor,” a haunted house that’s more about scares than theatricality. Meanwhile, catering to artsier thrill-seekers are “Steampunk,” created by performance-art troupe Third Rail Projects, and “Savoy,” co-presented by cutting-edge downtown venue PS 122.

“Play Dead,” on the other hand, has an open-ended run during which it can try to recoup its $950,000 capitalization. Directed by Teller, the play, which incorporates a healthy dose of stage illusions both hoary and newly invented, hopes to scare up auds with a summon-the-dead tale inspired by old-time spook shows. Robbins also stars.

The Halloween timing for the show, which began previews Oct. 21, aims to kickstart word-of-mouth garnered from previews, which most legiters consider a major key to success for any stage outing.

Marketing, which is only now shifting into overdrive, is set to have a Halloween slant, per Schuster, and Robbins is onboard to host the broadcast of this year’s Village Halloween Parade.

But producers carefully skedded the opening for Nov. 10, after Halloween, to drive home the idea that the show isn’t just trick-or-treat fare, with the advertising strategy morphing to drop the Halloween referencess and to highlight critical reaction.

Teller says he’s confident the appeal of a spooky (but not gory) thrill-ride like “Play Dead” can easily endure beyond jack-o’-lantern season.

“As we say in the play, nothing makes you feel more alive than being scared to death.”

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