Back in the 1930s and lasting for 40 years, a new tradition called the Midnight Spook show started in movie theaters nationwide. A magician would book a movie theater after the last showing on a Saturday night, and teenagers would flock to these spook shows as an excuse to be out late and to maybe get a little action with the person they brought with them. Written by Teller, of famous illusionist duo Penn and Teller, and Todd Robbins, Play Dead traces its inspiration to these spook shows, taking a very similar format to them and actually trying to do better.
Play Dead was created in Las Vegas with the intention of bringing it to New York. To keep the suspense and fear up, Play Dead does not give a synopsis of their show – the only things they reveal is that portions of the show take place in total darkness (even going so far as to turn off the exit signs), where they warn you to absolutely never stand up, and that the first thing that Todd Robbins, the narrator/magician, does is eat a lightbulb. They do say that the stories in the play are “based in historical truth”, but that Robbins will embellish the stories to make them more intimidating, scary, interesting, and fun. The stories focus on the lives of five people, all of whom were insane, said they could talk to the dead, or both – with the exception of Dorothy Bembridge, who was a close friend of Robbins. Robbins will openly mock the audience, resulting in nervous laughter, and occasionally call up patrons to “help” him with the show, and at the end the cast asks the audience to keep whatever goes on a secret, especially those who he had called up as they “may end up knowing a secret or two”.
The show takes on a very episodic nature, with Robbins telling the stories of his subjects separately and without connection between them other than the fact that they are all included in the same session. His antics on stage have some continuity in relation to the audience, but the actual things he does are completely different as well. One can actually say that Play Dead does not even have a main plot, as it does not tell one complete story from the beginning of the show to the end. And as a short play I saw titled What Is This? stated, every good play has a plot. (Of course, that show lampooned itself by stating that it was not a good play, so perhaps this should be taken with a grain of salt.) So, then, if Play Dead does not have a plot, can it be called a play in the true sense? Not really. It is actually more similar to a very interactive history lesson than to a straight play like Rent.
Certainly this lack of a plot does not make the show any less scary, although the fear it instills in you is not the type of fear that keeps haunting you for a few days after you leave the theater – rather, this fear is more of a mind screw, more psychological in nature than the something-is-going-to-kill-me-run kind of fear. But does this lack of plot make it less effective as a show? Is it a bad play, as What Is This? seems to assert? Definitely not. The show not only tries to, and succeeds in, scaring you, but also points out just how evil people who claim to be able to contact the dead can be. Some of the events in the show can really hit the recently bereaved hard, perfectly demonstrating just how emotional a topic death is and warning the audience away from those who claim to be able to peer into the afterlife. Regardless, it is a very enjoyable show, even for those who do not like the horror genre – the injected humor helps – and is definitely worth seeing.
Play Dead is performed at Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St., Greenwich Village, NY, and is written and directed by Teller and Todd Robbins. Visit www.playdeadnyc.com for more information.