Robbins hosts the show, speaking directly to the audience and telling tales of mass murderers, killers, mediums, and charlatans, all with the (possibly reluctant) assistance of some audience memberswho frequently find themselves cast in the role of the victim. Now, it's no spoiler to tell you that Robbins doesn't actually kill anyone during the show. And you can be fairly certain (upwards of 99%, surely) that he's not going to cause anyone any lasting physical harm. But what makes the show work is that you don't know exactly how far Robbins will go. It's pretty clear from the start that he has a somewhat different definition of "personal space" than you might expect in the theatre, and the audience learns through experience where Robbins draws the line.
At the start of the show, you're plunged into total darkness while Robbins invites your fears to run away with you. He also invites the people sitting around you to help your fears get started on that journey. If you're sitting in front of someone, the darkness makes you acutely aware of how easy it is for a total stranger to make you jump. If you happen to be sitting in front of the break in the audience, as I was, the darkness makes you feel very exposed. Indeed, if you've glanced at your program before the show, you might have noticed that there are four other people in Play Dead, even though it's evident that this is pretty much a one-man venture on the part of Robbins. Sitting there, in the dark, with a whole aisle of empty behind your back, you may start to wonder who those other four people are, and, more importantly, what might they be up to in the dark?
It's the not knowing that makes your pulse race, and Robbins and Teller have put together a show that runs just long enoughjust when you start to figure out the rules of the game, the game changes one last time, then it's over.
To be sure, there are a few valid places for nitpicking. Since your rational mind is solidly aware that Robbins isn't going to actually kill an audience member, your irrational mind doesn't really believe it when Robbins makes like he isthat part of the show goes on for quite some time and doesn't create much in the way of a sense of unease. In contrast, your irrational mind goes happily crazy when Robbins invites an audience member to stick her hand inside a closed box full of things associated with a mass murderer. You've no idea what she's going to encounter in that box (although you can be pretty sure she won't like it). That sort of small-scale bit works much better than the (fake) murder, because it plays off of a good solid fear of the unknown. Additionally, many of the effects in the show depend on pinpoint accuracy in executiona half-second delay in an unexpected blackout can kill its impactand, at the performance reviewed, some of the effects did not come off quite as crisply as necessary, with disappointing results.
But there are other illusions which I am still puzzling over, which is as it should be. As much as I enjoyed the fun ride, I think my favorite part of Play Dead came after the show, when a fellow audience member asked the "murder victim" exactly how he had escaped certain death. The victim replied haltingly, "I - I don't know. It was all a blur." I smiled on my way out of the theatre. The very best thing about Play Dead is that it made an entire audience eager to play along.
Play Dead runs at the Geffen Playhouse through December 22, 2013. For tickets and information, see geffenplayhouse.com/.
The Geffen Playhouse presents Play Dead. Featuring Todd Robbins; Written by Todd Robbins & Teller. Set Designer Tom Buderwitz; Costume Designer Kathryn Shemanek; Lighting Designer Elizabeth Harper; Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers; Magic Designer Johnny Thompson; Illusions Engineer Thom Rubino; Associate Director Jim Millan; Production Stage Manager Young Ji; Casting by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Ensemble Julie Marie Hassett, Brianna Hurley, Shar Mayer, Rick Willimson. Directed by Teller.