THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Not for the Faint of Heart!
By Terry Teachout
Teller, Penn Jillette's silent partner in prestidigitation, has extramagical theatrical ambitions of his own. He first put them on public display three years ago when New Jersey's Two River Theater Company invited him to co-direct a horror-show staging of "Macbeth" that was one of the most exciting Shakespeare productions to come my way in recent seasons. By all rights it should have transferred from there to Broadway, but instead it vanished from sight after shortish runs in Red Bank, N.J., and at the Folger Theatre in Washington. Now Mr. Teller is at it again, this time with a solidly crafted, sensationally entertaining Off-Broadway shockfest called "Play Dead" that he directed and co-wrote. While I'm no producer, I'll be surprised if "Play Dead" doesn't settle in for a long, profitable run at the Players Theatre. Yes, you'll scream—I did, repeatedly—but "Play Dead" has a hard core of emotional seriousness that makes it more than just an exercise in audience manipulation (and I use that last word advisedly).
Without spoiling any of its secrets, I can say that "Play Dead" is a slicked-up version of a good old-fashioned Saturday-night spook show in which Todd Robbins, Mr. Teller's co-author and onstage alter ego, tells the more or less true stories of a serial killer, two phony mediums, a geek (look it up) and a murder victim whom Mr. Robbins knew in real life. During and in between these narratives, things…happen. The nature of these grisly occurrences can best be summarized by saying that the white suit worn by Mr. Robbins grows steadily redder throughout the evening.
Seeing as how the creators of "Play Dead" are both veteran stage magicians, it stands to reason that you'll see—or think you saw—some spectacular and seemingly inexplicable illusions, including the eating of a lightbulb and the murder of an audience member. But what really drives the show is the contempt in which its makers rightly hold those charlatans who use "magic" to defraud the public. The middle section of "Play Dead," for instance, is a Houdini-like re-enactment of a fake séance that is, at one and the same time, funny, furious and wholly enthralling.
In addition to being a noted illusionist, Mr. Robbins also turns out to be quite an accomplished actor: "Play Dead" is a one-man-and-four-corpses show, and he effortlessly carries the action for 90 uninterrupted minutes, delivering his lines in the richly fraudulent tones of a big-league scamster whose eye is firmly fixed on your wallet. Mr. Teller is nowhere to be seen, though he does deliver the preshow turn-off-your-phone announcement on tape, but his staging is as tight as a bespoke straitjacket. (I wish some smart opera company would invite him to direct Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Medium.") David Korins's set and Gary Stockdale's incidental music, which is performed on a player piano, are suitably creepy.
Two pieces of advice: (1) If Mr. Robbins asks you to go onstage, say yes. (2) Wait until after the show to eat dinner.