'Play Dead'

If there's one thing more fun than a haunted house, it's a haunted theater, especially in a venue as authentically creepy as the decrepit Players Theater in Greenwich Village.

If there’s one thing more fun than a haunted house, it’s a haunted theater, especially in a venue as authentically creepy as the decrepit Players Theater in Greenwich Village. “Play Dead,” a screwball audience-participation magic show devised by Teller (the truly terrifying half of Penn and Teller) and Todd Robbins, who performs this one-man show with the help of a handful of haunts, needs more technical work before it can go on the road, where it could play all those spooky playhouses that sit abandoned in downtown theater districts. Anywhere but Vegas, which probably wouldn’t get the joke.

This isn’t to say that Robbins, a slick busker who turns out imaginative magic shows with regularity, doesn’t take his craft very, very seriously. Presenting himself in an immaculate white suit (which becomes streaked with stage blood as the evening progresses) and announcing his intention to “invite Death out to play,” this intensely focused showman immediately startles his audience by eating a lightbulb.

Having captured everyone’s attention, he then plunges the house into total darkness and invites his captive aud to “give in to that irresistible urge to do bad.”

That gimmick was lifted, he freely confides, from the cheesy Midnight Spook shows that were a staple of American stage entertainment from the 1930s into the 1970s. A magician would book a movie theater for a Saturday night, taking the stage after the final feature to perform his act. For the grand finale, the magician would douse the lights and frighten the largely teenage audience by stirring up their own horny imaginations. (“There’s nothing more erotic than the chill of fear.”)

That finale also happens here. But first, the show:

After reminiscing about the great parties he used to throw for his high school friends in the municipal cemetery of his hometown, Robbins reveals the depth of his lifelong fascination with the dead. “The dead live inside me,” he says, with a maniacal glint in his eye.

The dead spirits that live in him and materialize here are all pretty bizarre characters, including Albert Fish, the Brooklyn maniac who killed, cooked, and ate children; Mina Crandon, the Boston socialite who held orgiastic seances in her Beacon Hill townhouse; and Eusapia Palladino, the crafty medium who conned European scientists with her phony psychic act. It is their real-life shenanigans that supply the narrative structure for the nifty stage illusions — including the gruesome “murder” (and spectacular disposal) of an audience volunteer — that Robbins pulls off.

The broader theme of the show, something about how we all carry the spirits of the dead inside us and should learn to live with them, seems like a Teller truism. But it’s such an abstract metaphysical concept that Robbins is forced to repeat it ad infinitum to get the point across — and to set up the show’s big finale. It also doesn’t seem to have much to do with another point made in the show: that people should beware of psychics, who are all frauds.

That all needs more thought, as do the skimpy set (why not use the whole theater?), uneven sound (not enough screams), and certain special effects in the seance scene. What holds up, though, are the genuinely spooky magic effects, including the ones involving honest-to-god audience volunteers — not a stooge among them. Guy eats lightbulbs? Reads minds? Has a pet rat? No discussion necessary — book him.showman immediately startles his audience by eating a lightbulb.

Having captured everyone’s attention, he then plunges the house into total darkness and invites his captive aud to “give in to that irresistible urge to do bad.”

That gimmick was lifted, he freely confides, from the cheesy Midnight Spook shows that were a staple of American stage entertainment from the 1930s into the 1970s. A magician would book a movie theater for a Saturday night, taking the stage after the final feature to perform his act. For the grand finale, the magician would douse the lights and frighten the largely teenage audience by stirring up their own horny imaginations. (“There’s nothing more erotic than the chill of fear.”)

That finale also happens here. But first, the show:

After reminiscing about the great parties he used to throw for his high school friends in the municipal cemetery of his hometown, Robbins reveals the depth of his lifelong fascination with the dead. “The dead live inside me,” he says, with a maniacal glint in his eye.

The dead spirits that live in him and materialize here are all pretty bizarre characters, including Albert Fish, the Brooklyn maniac who killed, cooked, and ate children; Mina Crandon, the Boston socialite who held orgiastic seances in her Beacon Hill townhouse; and Eusapia Palladino, the crafty medium who conned European scientists with her phony psychic act. It is their real-life shenanigans that supply the narrative structure for the nifty stage illusions — including the gruesome “murder” (and spectacular disposal) of an audience volunteer — that Robbins pulls off.

The broader theme of the show, something about how we all carry the spirits of the dead inside us and should learn to live with them, seems like a Teller truism. But it’s such an abstract metaphysical concept that Robbins is forced to repeat it ad infinitum to get the point across — and to set up the show’s big finale. It also doesn’t seem to have much to do with another point made in the show: that people should beware of psychics, who are all frauds.

That all needs more thought, as do the skimpy set (why not use the whole theater?), uneven sound (not enough screams), and certain special effects in the seance scene. What holds up, though, are the genuinely spooky magic effects, including the ones involving honest-to-god audience volunteers — not a stooge among them. Guy eats lightbulbs? Reads minds? Has a pet rat? No discussion necessary — book him.

Play Dead

Players Theater; 230 seats; $69 top

Production

An Alan Schuster, Cheryl Wiesenfeld, and Pat Blake presentation, in association with Frank and Jono Gero and Ethan Silverman, of a play in one act by Teller and Todd Robbins. Directed by Teller.

Creative

Set, David Korins; costumes, Kathryn Shemanek; lighting, Thom Weaver; sound, Leon Rothenberg; magic design, Johnny Thompson; magic engineering, Thom Rubino; original music, Gary Stockdale; production stage manager, Maggie Sinak. Reviewed Nov. 4, 2010. Opened Nov. 10. Running time: ONE HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast

Performed by Todd Robbins with: Charlotte Pines; Geri Berman; Don Meehan; Drea Lorraine

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more