nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 4, 2010
Rooted in the spook show and the seance, with characters drawn from carnival and criminal culture, Play Dead is a trip through American show-biz, spiritualist, and huckster traditions, a journey into the precincts of the eerie, the scary, and the unexplainable, in search of encounters with the dead. In the hands of the inimitable Todd Robbins—who created the show with Teller, the smaller and quieter half of the duo Penn & Teller—serenaded by a player piano, and surrounded (in the appropriate setting of the gently rundown Players Theatre) by a private museum of the dead, we visit with and are visited by a variety of notable deceased, each with his or her own unusual relationship with death: serial child-murderer Albert Fish, carnival geek Congo, sexy medium Mina "Margery" Crandon, and more. By turns darkly comic, pleasurably creepy, and genuinely scary, Play Dead is a wildly entertaining ride.
And in order to take this ride, you have to put yourself firmly in Todd Robbins's hands—often quite literally, as audience participation is regularly required, with almost every scene involving a willing (or very-reluctantly-willing) volunteer in an integral role, from simply putting their hands inside the archive boxes on the set to having their minds read to being integral parts of the scene. Robbins is one of the last of the old-time showmen, and the piece fully displays his wide array of skills, from simple raconteuring to large-scale "how the hell did he do that" feats of stage magic to "I can't believe he just did that" bits of sideshow performance to "did I really see that?" moments of illusion that go by so quickly you'll miss them if you happen to be looking the wrong direction. Mix all this with an idiosyncratic history lesson, a little bit of ragtime piano, and a lot of time spent in pitch blackness, and you get a sense of what Play Dead is like.
Here's the problem with actually saying anything more specific about the show: you'll enjoy it less if I do. I don't want to give away its surprises—which are many—or describe its tricks—which are almost certainly more fun to witness than they are to write about. (And if you really want to know the show's secrets, try to get yourself picked as a participant—you'll get an insider view the rest of the audience isn't privy to.)
Now, there are definitely some caveats; this show is probably not for everyone. If you've got horrible stage fright, for example, be warned that even sitting in the back or away from the aisle can't guarantee you won't be called upon to be part of the show. (I suppose the truly unenthusiastic could say no, but where's the fun in that?) And if you're scared of the dark, let me repeat: big chunks of the show do take place in unrelieved darkness. (The program assures that there are safety precautions the audience can't see, for the record.)
But if the above paragraph excited rather than alarmed you—then Play Dead is definitely the show for you.