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Boos and Shrieks in the Dark - Play Dead

Todd Robbins in "Play Dead"
Michael Lamont

"Play Dead" at the Geffen Playhouse


Never trust a man wearing a suit the color of freshly fallen snow, particularly if this man smiles and apologizes for things he is about to do and takes a somewhat cavalier attitude toward death. A man such as this is at home in the dark. You would do well never to turn your back on a man whose white-as-snow suit can not be seen in the total blackness.

This man is Todd Robbins, the co-writer and performer of a unique little horror magic show called “Play Dead.” Serving as our host, psychic, raconteur and tour guide through things that we will find more macabre than he does, Robbins spends a tidy 75 minutes creeping the bejesus out of a quite receptive audience at the Geffen Playhouse.

Actually, things aren’t that tidy.

But first, a disclaimer. Decorum requires this review to embrace vagueness over specificity. “Play Dead,” a horror show with magic (or maybe it’s the other way around), includes acts of illusion, tricks, traps and surprises which will be no fun to anybody who knows they are coming. We will therefore attempt to get off the (cyber) page leaving you as much in the dark as Robbins does.

Yes, darkness, as in lights out, no exit signs, don’t-try –to-adjust-your-vision-it-won’t-help-you’re-screwed-oblivion. This happens early and often, and you do not get used to it because Robbins doesn’t let you. While you sit there blacked out, he’s shouting or exhorting, encouraging the audience or the spirits who he claims are among us to do their mischief. And whether or not you buy into our host’s belief that the dead – freshly or long gone – can come out and play, when the lights go out in this theater, you will be messed with.

Some of this messing is more sophisticated than others. Our set (designed by Tom Buderwitz) has the air of a run down carnival fun house packed into a storage locker. Posters, pictures, crucifixes and freak show brick-a-brack line the walls. Labeled cardboard boxes are brought out, opened and emptied. A player piano provides an eerie accompaniment. Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, sound designer Crickert S. Myers, magic designer Johnny Thompson and illusions engineer Thom Rubino have achieved a nice synchronicity. Some of what Robbins and the technical team pull off are, let’s face it, sophisticated parlor tricks you might experience at a high tech house or horrors. The Long Beach-reared Robbins was, in fact, a sideshow man.

Some of the scares are psychological, and therefore self induced. We’re not talking so much “how did he do that?” as “How could he know that…unless…” And with Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) as both the director and co-writer of “Play Dead,” the show has a cracked and occasionally gory sensibility. You’ll witness Robbins doing some things that will make you queasy. The suggestion of things he might do has the same effect. The man in the white suit with the easy smile might just be that demented.

Whether he is or not, “Play Dead” is a devilish good scare.

“Play Dead” plays 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday ending Sunday at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue. $69-$74. 310-208-5454,

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