Play Dead: Film Review

Performance film only partly conveys stage play's fright-show appeal.

The silent half of Penn & Teller presents an evening of macabre magic.

Teller, the single-named, non-verbal half of Penn & Teller, has an affinity for silver-tongued stage partners. He stays behind the scenes in Play Dead, swapping Penn Jillette to direct NYC-based Todd Robbins in a one-man show whose tongue-in-cheek supernatural themes nicely complement Teller's more famous, more skepticism-based productions. Thinner than the best P&T material, the show loses a bit more when filmed for an audience out of reach of Robbins' creepy-crawly gags; on small screens, though, it should be diverting enough to please fans drawn in by Teller's reputation.

Where Penn & Teller thrive on debunking hokum, Robbins spends his show embracing it, using the lives of real-world villains (from sham psychics to notorious child-slayer Albert Fish) as the foundation for ghost stories and other routines that "invite death to come out and play." Wearing a white suit -- soon sullied by copious fake blood -- he spends most of his time working the crowd: One volunteer is brutally slain and dissolved with acid, others participate in a séance, another is transformed into a faux medium before being subjected to bloody "psychic surgery."

Much of this material would be more fun in person, where the cheesiness of the gags (more than once, Robbins turns out the lights and has stagehands jostle audience members or splatter them with goo) would have a more visceral appeal. But Robbins is an engaging storyteller, cooing through his death-obsessed shtick and balancing good manners with menace, even if the show's simplest stunts are his best: He eats a lightbulb early on, chewing and swallowing it before us, easily trumping the murders and resurrections to come.

Production Company: RIP, LLC
Cast: Todd Robbins, Drea Lorraine, Charlotte Pines, April Andres, Trey Johnson
Directors: Shade Rupe and Teller
Screenwriters: Todd Robbins and Teller
Producers: Shade Rupe and Fred Soffa
Executive producer: Teller
Directors of photography: Tony Forma, Ian Vollmer, Jim Sicile, Vasilios Sfinarolakis
Production designer: David Korins
Music: Gary Stockdale
Costume designer: Katheryn Shemanek
Editor: Emery Emery
No rating, 71 minutes