In Play Dead, magician Todd Robbins kills - not just with stage magic and clever punchlines but much more bluntly, with a crowbar and a drum of sufuric acid. Of course, the young man did volunteer, and then there's the matter of resurrection...
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The "Midnight Spookhouse" is one of the lost guilty pleasures of the 20th Century, an art form built out of Grand Guignol gimmickry, classic stage magic, side show bravado and copious amounts of fake blood. From the great depression until the early '70s, travelling acts with names like "Dr. Evil & His Terrors of the Unknown" would rent out small town moviehouses after hours to perform gory, titilating shows for thrill-seeking crowds.
Robbins and Play Dead's co-writer/director Teller (the shorter, quieter half of Penn & Teller) revive the spookhouse tradition for 21st Century audiences in their new Off Broadway show. Robbins presents himself as a genial if not entirely trusthworthy guide to a Rogue's gallery of real-life killers, cannibals and con-artists. Their stories are brought to life through his tricks and illusions: spirit conjuring, disappearances, levitations and transformations. Volunteers plucked out of the audience are often returned to their seats bloody - if they manage to return at all. When the lights go out and you're splattered with what must surely be "ectoplasmic discharge," don't be surprised if you hear your own voice among the giddy screams.
To offer more details would give away the fun. Robbins and Teller are awfully good showmen with a finally calibrated sense of how to balance the laughs and scares right up through the play's all-Hell-breaks-loose finale. If you’re in New York, swing by The Players Theatre and experience some good ol' fashion fun in the dark. Tickets are available online at TicketMaster.com. Use code 'DEAD1' for $25 seats now through January 16, 2011.