This has definitely been the year for unusual theatrical experiences. First there was GATZ, the unexpurgated eight-hour performance of THE GREAT GATSBY, and now I’ve returned from a much shorter but still relentlessly outre production. Like GATZ, it isn’t exactly a play, but whatever it is, it’s a doggone good one. It’s called PLAY DEAD, and I loved it.
It’s inspired by the “midnight spook show,” a bygone midcentury staple in movie theaters across the country. A magician would book the room, dress up his tricks with ghostly patter, and preside until the finale, when a live monster would burst into the audience just as all the lights went out. You went there so your girlfriend could scream and grab on tight. PLAY DEAD is the best “midnight spook show” there could ever be.
The piece is co-written and directed by Teller, the quieter half of Penn &. His co-writer and on-stage performer is Todd Robbins, an old hand at carny feats and other forms of magic. And they have found the perfect dilapidated theater, the Players on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, the same venue where I saw the Fugs live 43 summers ago. This place looks like it was haunted even before the master illusionists moved in.
I can’t go into detail about what happens during PLAY DEAD’s 75 minutes without spoiling surprises – and you might well get your chance to see it, because this is a show which could not only settle in for a long run at the 200-plus-seat Players, but it could also travel anywhere the creators can physically mount their stuff. Let’s just say that not only do spooks visit the theater, they visit you personally. Several times during the show, the house goes black, including exit lights. You can’t see your hand before your face. And in the darkness, something touches you. I have no idea how this effect is achieved. In the prerecorded turn-off-your-phones message, Teller instructs us not to stand up during the blackouts; for safety reasons, “eyes are watching you.” There was absolutely no room behind me the first time a ghost connected, and that’s where it felt like it was coming from.
The meat of this one-man (or is he alone, nyaaa-hahaha) show is close contemplation of death, triggered by grisly true tales of horrible killers, told with immense charm and Hitchcockian morbid humor by Mr. Robbins. He enters, illuminated only by the bare-bulb “ghost light” (which, by long theatrical tradition, remains onstage when nobody else is present), in an immaculate white suit. Beyond that I must not stray, except to tell you that the white suit will be slathered with stage blood before we repair homeward. Audience members – the production swears they are not actors or plants, they learn certain secrets spontaneously as I once did – are chosen to do and/or undergo amazing things, and the Grand Guignol magic is first-rate. As another reviewer noted, if Mr. Robbins ever invites you onstage, say yes!
I was in the second row, one seat from the stage-left wall, and I sussed out the method for one small early gag, but I never would have noticed had I not been situated so close and on that particular side. That’s the only one I won. But that was small change. Later, I beheld the most astonishing magical appearance of a human being I’ve ever seen, from barely fifteen feet away in full theatrical light. Again, and as usual, I had no bloody idea. I have my suspicions, but unfortunately they involve discovering another dimension through which to build a trap door, and these mega-grifters aren’t exactly hanging around in Stockholm waiting for the Nobel ceremony in physics. Mixed together with some tiresome carny moves we’ve long learned to reject, the genuine, unexpected one absolutely floored us. So clever. I still have no bloody idea. As Hitchcock boasted about PSYCHO, these people were playing their audience, like an organ.
I’ll also reveal that PLAY DEAD attempts to top the typical spook-show finale, and it succeeds. The show is one-third laughter, one-third heart palpitation and screaming (oh, believe me, you will exclaim out loud), and one-third amazement at some brilliant, jaw-dropping illusions. Johnny Thompson, a veteran “invisible man” who’s worked with most of the greats, gets a credit for “Magic Design,” though I suspect that role was collaborative — but however it arrived, the magic design is in fine form here. I should emphasize that PLAY DEAD is definitely not for children, and the copious blood is only one reason. The language is mild. Hmmm: what else could there be?
There is even a point to it all, beyond the yelps and yucks. One of the fiends which Mr. Robbins brings back from the grave, the monster who earns his deepest ire, is Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), a fraudulent “medium” who preyed on the griefstricken by claiming to put them in touch with deceased loved ones. He demonstrates the effect – “it’s easy!” — with audience members, and it is this heartless charlatan for whom he reserves the word “evil.” Con artists who fleece the gullible, taking cruel advantage of such a vulnerable moment, are beneath PLAY DEAD’s contempt. In a nice, safe theater, where things are “fake and fun,” as Mr. Robbins puts it, phony seances can be exhilarating. But in the world outside, sometimes we forget that such “events,” however craftily simulated, are just as fake: always have been, always will be. Thus does a spook show actually conjure the spirit of Houdini.
PLAY DEAD held its workshop production in Las Vegas, Penn & Teller’s home base, establishing that it’s potentially mobile, as I noted above. But the Players is just perfect. I read that the creators have considered hosting special post-show reveal performances in which the lights don’t go off, to show us how the startling “touch” effects are done. That would be a typical Penn & Teller stunt, but don’t do it, boys. I want my spirits to remain mysterious.
P.S., one month later: However, I did manage to take a photo of Mr. Robbins and an ethereal…um…well…in the lobby afterwards. (Penn & Teller also greet their audience personally after each show, a fine tradition which is kept alive here.) The snap was my very first try with my new smartphone and it’s far too shaky to post here, but if you still want to see it, let me know and I’ll email it to you. (It won’t reveal much that you couldn’t already expect.)
3/5/11: For one performance, there was a “plant,” sort of. New York Times obituary writer Bruce Weber tells about his chance to play dead.
7/24/11: PLAY DEAD’s New York run ended with today’s 7pm show. I can’t imagine that this much creativity and covert intelligence will be denied further audiences at other venues. Watch out!
8/30/11: OK, now that the show’s closed, here’s my shaky photo:
4/8/13: I read in Variety today that they’re planning a Los Angeles engagement. Don’t miss it!