Review: 'Play Dead' with glee as Todd Robbins conjures chills

As the Geffen Playhouse's revival of the 2010 off-Broadway hit "Play Dead" came to its macabre, gory and unexpectedly palpable crescendo Wednesday, I was ready to rush home and describe my blood-chilling experiences.

But then, at his curtain call, star and co-author Todd Robbins asked me (and everyone else) not to. "Don't give our tricks away," he urged, with the same twinkle in his eye that had persuaded many audience members to follow his alarming, counterintuitive instructions during the highly interactive evening. 

Why shouldn't I? The tall, velvety-voiced, sinisterly charismatic Robbins, who had stalked onstage in a gleaming white suit 90 minutes earlier, had just done his best to scare the wits out of me. 

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I’d been locked in — surely the chains I’d heard tightening across the doors weren’t real? — and plunged into complete darkness ("an inky black sea," as Robbins euphoniously described it). Someone or something had touched my leg. I had been beguiled, misled, startled, spattered with some fluid and murdered. OK, I hadn't personally been murdered, but a guy named Eric sitting right behind me nearly had.

And I'd had a wonderful time.

Robbins and his co-author and director, Teller (of Penn & Teller), conceived "Play Dead" as a homage to the spook shows put on by traveling magicians back in the 1930s. It combines a tongue-in-cheek, skeptical humor, which will be familiar to Penn & Teller fans, with elements from carnival sideshows (Robbins has worked at the sideshow at Coney Island and elsewhere), magic shows, séances and haunted houses. 

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Tom Buderwitz’s enchanting set is heaped with the paraphernalia of a life on the carnie circuit: faded advertisements, musty props and cardboard boxes, from which Robbins draws the memento mori he uses to tell true (if embellished) horror stories and then spin them into illusions.

There’s a box for Albert Fish, a turn-of-the-century serial killer. One for Dorothy Bembridge, an ill-fated Long Beach woman. One for Hezekiah Trimble, a circus geek. (By the end of the show, there was a new box for Eric.)

The illusions themselves vary in impressiveness. Maybe not all will blow your mind. It won't matter. The dark, the gore, the morbid anecdotes — and that eye-twinkle — will put you into a state of nervous excitement like nothing since pre-teen slumber parties.

But this is an adult show: A segment on Margery the Boston Medium explores the ribald side of spiritualism, and two female ensemble members appear nude in the finale. Robbins admits that his fascination with death has a concupiscent agenda: He began his career by arranging midnight picnics for friends in cemeteries, where fright led to cuddling. “The moans I heard … were not from the dead,” he recalls. So if you go (and you should), take a date.

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“Play Dead," The Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays (Thanksgiving week only: 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday; no performance Thursday), 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends December 22. $57-$87. Contact: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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