Sideshow habitué Todd Robbins has the smoothness of a televangelist and similarly appalling taste in suiting. He apparently enjoys a bit of call-and-response. As he engages with the audience at the Players Theatre during a midweek performance of Play Dead, he has spectators chorusing “Hallelujah!” and then “Amen!” and then, more reluctantly, “We’re all screwed.”
In this loving and ghoulish tribute to the spook shows of the ’30s through ’70s, Robbins and his director and co-writer, Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), aim to horrify, terrify, and panic those assembled. Their excuse, says Robbins: “We’re never so alive as when we’re scared to death.”
Sometimes Robbins relies on mere gross-out, such as chomping on a lightbulb until his tongue bleeds. Sometimes he falls back on chilling tales, like that of Albert Fish, the Brooklyn cannibal. Sometimes he arranges for the resurrected dead to run up and down the aisles goosing spectators. Many of these methods are intensely gimmicky; they’re also intensely effective. I spent most of the show with my head buried in my date’s shoulder. The woman in front of me wouldn’t stop shrieking. Not since the Beatles has an audience screamed so unceasingly.
Of course, once you’ve unclenched your hands and relaxed your uvula, you might fault the piece’s structure. Barring a rather tacky (and naked) finale, Robbins’s stunts and stories don’t have much to say to one another. Scenes seem excuses for him to reveal a particular talent or frighten an audience participant rather than parts of a coherent whole. But Robbins, who honed his talents as a barker at Coney Island’s Ten-in-One freak show, is a born showman—astute, adroit, wonderfully oily—and he ably disguises Play Dead‘s unsound construction. “Amen!” to that.