In New Play, Teller Raises The 'Dead'

If you could talk to the dead, would you want to? That's the question explored in the new off-Broadway production Play Dead. It was directed by the magician Teller — of the duo Penn and Teller — as an homage to the old magic seance shows. On the stage, performer Todd Robbins raises the dead, plays tricks on the audience, and generally scares the wits out of anyone who shows up.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, now to a new off-Broadway production that explores this question: If you could talk to the dead, would you want to? The show is called "Play Dead," and it's an homage to the old magic seance shows directed by the magician teller of the duo Penn & Teller. On stage, the dead are raised.

And as NPR's Robert Smith reports, they don't always behave.

ROBERT SMITH: The scariest moments in "Play Dead" are all in your head. In fact, the show opens by turning off all the lights.

(Soundbite of play, "Play Dead")

Mr. TODD ROBBINS (Actor): You are sitting in true darkness. Well, there are those exit signs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBBINS: So if anything would happen, you could find your way out.

SMITH: You can barely make out magician Todd Robbins walking over to the fuse box.

(Soundbite of click)

SMITH: And then complete blackness.

(Soundbite of play, "Play Dead")

Mr. ROBBINS: Much better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Sure, they laugh now, but then, the doors are bolted.

(Soundbite of play, "Play Dead")

(Soundbite of screaming)

Mr. ROBBINS: There you go. Yeah.

SMITH: And that's even before the dead have started to come back to life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Backstage, after the show, Robbins and his director, Teller, concede this is an old trick.

TELLER (Director, "Play Dead"): There is a history of this kind of show in a certain way. They were called spook shows, and they started in 1929.

SMITH: With clever magicians who would commandeer old movie houses after the very last show.

TELLER: And a perfect show for midnight on Saturday night is one that's designed to make teenagers scream and grope each other.

Mr. ROBBINS: One of the things they used to advertise was ghost hands will reach out and grab you in the dark. And they would never have to provide this. This trick is done by the person sitting next to you.

SMITH: Sure, that's perfect for teenagers. But what about the savvy adult New Yorker? He needs a little more intellectual horror. So Todd Robbins conducts the show as a sort of one-man history of seances, exposing the tricks that mediums have used for centuries and replacing them with some doozies of his own.

Once the lights are up, he grabs one of the bulbs and takes a bite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of play, "Play Dead")

Mr. ROBBINS: A lot of you think this is impossible. This must have been made out of candy or sugar, something like that. Ah-ah, they don't tell you. The glass is real. Come on, take a look at this.

SMITH: An audience member pricks his finger and this will not be the last blood we see. Robbins' clean white suit will be drenched in blood by the end. But I'm getting ahead of the show.

As the modern-day seance begins, that reality line starts to blur. Robbins brings forth the ghost of historical bad guys like turn-of-the-century serial killer Albert Fish. It's scary, but clearly fake. But then he channels the spirit of an audience member's dead relative.

(Soundbite of play, "Play Dead")

Mr. ROBBINS: Will(ph), are you here tonight? Will, Will, Bob is here. And how did he die?

WILL: Cancer.

Mr. ROBBINS: Yes. Now, as we're talking about this and you hear this voice, he lives for you just for a moment, doesn't he?

WILL: He does.

Mr. ROBBINS: Yeah. Even though people know it's fake, they react to it as if it's real.

SMITH: Backstage, Robbins and Teller say that even today, mediums continue to scam people with these tricks.

Mr. ROBBINS: Really, all it requires is someone to stand there and say, I'm getting an older woman, an initial M. She'd say...

Unidentified Man: Okay, that's mom, that's mom.

Mr. ROBBINS: And it's reversed 20 Questions. And people will jump at the chance to round off the corners and fill in the blanks. There's someone named Michael that's in - Michael or...

Unidentified Man: My brother's name was Murray.

Mr. ROBBINS: Yes. Yes, that's what it is, that's what it is.

SMITH: It seems funny, but people have been reduced to tears during the show by these tricks even though Robbins tells the audience right out: This is fake. But then again, they have just watched him eat a light bulb.

Mr. ROBBINS: There's a way of chewing it up and swallowing it so it doesn't carve the mouth and throat. And there's a diet, a regimen I go through every day that keeps the glass moving through my system.

SMITH: Fiber, lots of fiber. Now, none of these reveals where all the blood in the show comes from, but I can play you what it sounds like.

(Soundbite of screaming)

(Soundbite of play, "Play Dead")

Mr. ROBBINS: You wanted the dead back from the grave, well, here they are.

SMITH: "Play Dead" has its official premiere in New York City tomorrow, well after Halloween, you'll notice. So as just Halloween is for amateurs, this is a professional scare.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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