Play Dead: Theater Review

Courtesy of Geffen Playhouse
A proudly old-school spookfest that authentically connects the audience with a nearly lost tradition of stage magic. 

Teller of magic duo Penn & Teller directs this illusory consideration of mortality at the Geffen Playhouse.

Anyone who can still relish the hokum of cunning patter and the crafty spinning of yarns should not miss magician Todd Robbins’ deft resurrection of a bygone theatrical tradition of scares, tingles and bemused contemplation of the gory demises of others and ourselves. With the knowing collaboration of celebrity performer Teller, Robbins conjures up a phantasmagoria of macabre heritage, ranging from carny sideshow hucksterism to society spiritualist seances to campfire tales. Neither urbane nor corny, Play Dead plays scrupulously fair with its sources: winking, twinkling, flamboyantly self-conscious yet bracingly purged of any attitude of irony or distance.

On a baroquely musty stage bedecked with cardboard storage boxes labeled with names of luminaries, obscure and immortal (“William Castle,” “Boris Karloff,” “Edgar Allen [sic] Poe”), Robbins dusts off old routines with polished panache, seductively cajoling the audience with suggestive threats of pitch darkness, locked doors and invoked ghostly spirits. Though virtually all the effects may be steadfastly hoary, the truth is that one can rarely encounter this brand of magic anymore, with its sinuous and brash showmanship in which the vocal and aural arts are as crucial as the visual ones, and the rhythm and beats of the interaction with the audience are as artful as the timing of the feats of physical dexterity.

Robbins and Teller have exhumed a craft worth remembering as it inexorably recedes into a past beyond recall. Instead, we now have a plethora of “New Vaudeville,” which attempts to invigorate supposedly antique forms with self-referential pretensions and meta-aware performance art tropes, or of television and Las Vegas spectacle that dazzles more than it astounds. Thankfully, exponents of sleight-of-hand persist, and as stylings in humor mutate, so does comedy magic.

Though droll, Robbins prefers to be charmingly sinister, ominously teasing out inner fears with lighthearted suggestion. He grabs the crowd from the get-go. Within minutes, people around me were either laughing nervously or chattering in fear. Everyone settled down once they were assured they could trust the act to take them somewhere they were willing to go.

With appropriate embellishment, Robbins manages to squeeze in a lot of historic lore, from 19th-century serial child cannibals to legendary mediums. For those who think the word “geek” started out to designate someone who wore a pocket protector, he restores the word to its original meaning: a down-and-out performer reduced to biting the heads off of live animals (snake, chicken, rat). It requires no skill at all, he notes, though quite a bit of guts, as he demonstrates. He name-checks the much-beloved last dime museum in Manhattan, Hubert’s on 42nd Street, with its carny freaks and ghoulish exhibits. He displays an agile mastery of how guileful atmospherics create the environment in which the fantastical can be effectively provocative and gracefully anticipates the skeptics with disarming flourish.

There’s nothing innovative here (even the Grand Guignol effects are modest and quaint compared to what you might see at Zombie Joe’s Underground), just a genuine belief in and respect for an honorable entertainment that occupied a central part of the popular cultural consciousness for more than a century. As Dr. Frankenstein said in amazement, “It’s alive!” I had been more than amused, and slept that evening through violent nightmares of mortality. 

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through Dec. 22)

Cast: Todd Robbins, Julie Marie Hassett, Brianna Hurley, Shar Mayer, Rick Williamson

Director: Teller

Writers: Todd Robbins & Teller

Set designer: Tom Buderwitz

Costume designer: Kathryn Shemanek

Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper

Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers

Music: Gary Stockdale

Magic designer: Johnny Thompson

Illusions engineer: Thom Rubino