Charlotte Pines and Todd Robbins in Play Dead
(© Thom Kaine)
Charlotte Pines and Todd Robbins in Play Dead
(© Thom Kaine)
Play Dead, now at the Players Theatre, is a sadly appropriate title for a play that is, in many ways, as lifeless as they come. While the work -- co-written and directed by famed magician Teller -- is billed as a "thriller," it is more laughable than anything else.

Todd Robbins (the show's other co-writer) appears in an all white suit and a burgundy shirt and tie; he seems to be a cross between Mr. Applegate and a poorly dressed jazz performer, yet his lines are delivered methodically. The work's intention is to explore the themes of death, darkness and deception. And indeed, the room does get dark intermittently, especially when the audience isn't supposed to see the best part of Robbins' magic tricks.

The death portion of this play comes from Robbins' stories from the files of the departed. All of his stories are grounded in truth, and probably would have made for a compelling show if they were delivered in some other fashion. For example, Robbins speaks of Albert Fish, who kidnapped, murdered and ate children, and tells the story of Mina "Margery" Crandon, who held highly sexualized séances in the 1920s and whose reputation suffered when a "spirit" fingerprint left on wax turned out to belong to her dentist. Unfortunately, the set-up for each story is too long, and audiences will easily lose interest before he gets to the most intriguing aspect of each one. With the impending threat of something "surprising" happening, such as "blood" falling from the ceiling or the lights going out, his stories are just filler for the fun gags.

Some of Robbins' tricks are actually engaging. Early on, he eats a light bulb to the sounds of a cringing audience that simultaneously delights in his mischievous hoaxes. A table floats on stage at one point, and an audience member really gets to "play dead" when Robbins "kills" him with acid in the best sequence of all. However, a good portion of the show is little more than a really lame copy of John Edwards' act in which Robbins "communicates" with the dead.

The stage at Players Theater is small, but every inch is used to the play's benefit. David Korins' scenic design sets the proper mood for the schlocky piece, with a piano on one side (which ghosts play intermittently), and file boxes stacked around the remainder. In addition, Teller and Robbins' best writing is highlighted by the work of lighting designer Thom Weaver. Their words as pertaining to the significance of the ghost light (which both opens and closes the show) are what little food for thought can be found in this undernourished outing.