You start in Las Vegas. Safe on the Rio’s casino floor. Milling about, idly watching the “flairtenders” until Teller grabs a group of your friends and personally leads you through an unmarked hallway, beyond the casino, outside, through a giant tent known as the Calypso Room, and into a small theater in New York City. The Players Theatre on 115 MacDougal St., to be exact. It’s an intimate theater, about the size of a living room in a Summerlin. And like most New York buildings with a long past, the 103-year-old theater is said to be haunted.
Somewhere along the surprisingly short journey, Teller tells you and your friends (yes, the famously mute half of Penn & Teller uses vocalized words) that there will be moments when the theater is pitch black. And that no matter what happens, no matter what you may feel or fear, that you must absolutely stay in your seat. And if you don’t, then the lights will come on and the show will end and you’ll no longer find yourself in New York, but in Las Vegas.
You nod, wishing you had gone pee in advance, and just as he deposits you in your seat, he says that he hopes you’re ready to confront evil. So, you sit and stare at the set, which is mostly the theater’s exposed brick wall. There are also shelves of cold-case files and a stuffed blackbird. Except for the piano, it looks like the basement of a morgue, or worse. Pretty typical of those morbid New Yorkers, you assure yourself. The music is creepy. Your blood warms, your chest flutters and your breath quickens. Then the show starts, and a tall, thin man in a white suit walks onstage. He looks harmless, if not friendly. “Oh? That’s all?” you say to yourself, and you relax. But not for long.
According to the flier, “Play Dead is a 75-minute theatrical thrill ride to hell and back.” It’s a one-man show (with a few otherworldly helpers) created by Teller (director and co-writer) and Coney Island guru Todd Robbins (actor and co-writer), which opens Oct. 21 off-Broadway at The Players Theatre. But first, it’s giving a few workshop performances in Las Vegas, which allows invited locals the rare chance to catch an off-Broadway show before it opens.
After the show, I asked Teller to elaborate on the show’s premise. He said, in a beautiful, melodious voice like that of an old-time radio star: “In the 1930s and ’40s, at midnight on Saturday nights, some movie theaters would have what they called a spook show. After the regular movies had stopped playing, some creep—usually a magician, but a magician who is an alcoholic or an insane person—would do horrifying shows that would please the local teenagers because they’d want to have the joy of having a gorilla come at them and squeezing each other in the dark. Given the state of the world, Todd and I thought this would be a nice kind of show to revive, but to revive it for adults and with a bit more sophistication. Taking the idea of death, both as the standard horror movie and as … Excuse me for one second. Todd! Bravo!”
At that moment, Robbins joined us. He seemed to be wearing a red Jackson Pollock painting splattered on the canvas of his formerly pristine white suit. After introductions were made and compliments paid, Teller resumed his explication—“So that was our starting point”—but he never named that second idea about death, leaving it open to the imagination.
Now I’d established the “what” of the play. It’s a modern-day spook show. But what about the “why?”
“It’s very much like a roller coaster,” Robbins said of the show’s purpose. “You scream, and then you laugh. You get the shock, the surprise, the creepiness, and then the laughter that follows it. And the joy. Because [fear] makes you feel alive.”
The reason behind the show is to have fun. But there’s also a deeper reason, which is to debunk spiritualism, mediums and all that psychic mumbo jumbo that seem to surge anytime economies crumble. In short, Robbins tricks you, so that others won’t.
“That’s the difference between what we’re doing here and what’s being done outside of these walls,” Robbins said. “There are people that will take your trust and hurt you with it for their own benefit. That’s the real evil and scariness. It’s not ghosts and demons and goblins; it’s the real people who will stand there and look you in the eye and steal your soul.” Robbins and Teller produce quite the visual aid with the use of magic—the wonderfully insidious kind. The narrative, which at its most basic level is a spirited exploration of that dark basement set, offers plenty of opportunities to sneak in magic. “I don’t think people are really aware it’s magic,” said magic director Johnny Thompson (whom Teller describes as “the Yoda of magic”). “It’s more supernatural, and I think that’s the element we’re trying to create.”
Even though I only watched their first audience run-through, the creative project works. It’s an incredible, amazing, fun, scary and intelligent show. And the most exciting part is that it’s happening in Las Vegas.
Teller happily agrees.
“The crazy thing is that we’ve been supported enthusiastically by the Rio, which seems like a strange place for a laboratory theater,” he said. “It’s also really exciting for us to develop something in Vegas that’s going to New York instead of the other way around, which is the way it usually happens. Usually some musical cuts itself down to an hour and a half and … condescends to the tourists.”
We can all revel in reversing the New York-to-Vegas flow of culture, and if that flow has a distinct graveyard stench, then all the better.