Todd Robbins and Teller Bring Play Dead to Life at The Geffen

The macabre infused with merriment at The Geffen. Photo by Michael Lamont

The macabre infused with merriment at The Geffen. Photo by Michael Lamont

Writing a review for this revival of “Play Dead” currently in an extended run at the Geffen Playhouse is a little tricky, not because the play isn’t entertaining (and it certainly is), but because I was sworn to secrecy by the author himself.  As the play ended Todd Robbins stood on the blood soaked stage and pleaded with the audience, “Go out and tell people you if you had fun, but please don’t give our secrets away.”  So, without revealing too much, I will attempt to offer a glimpse inside.

Todd Robbins ingests a light bulb.  Photo by Michael Lamont

Todd Robbins ingests a light bulb. Photo by Michael Lamont

First, the stage looks like a cross between a dusty antique shop and the file room for CSI. Cardboard boxes are piled high with names and dates scrawled in sharpie on the sides. The dates look like birth and death dates and some leak fluids of various colors, hinting at what might be inside. Dim lights twinkle and blood red curtains drape the stage. Against this backdrop, we meet Todd Robbins, a tall man in a bleach bright white suit. He turns over an hourglass and begins to invite us to “come and play with death”. He tells us that if we decide to stay for the evening we are going to come face to face with death and that it may make us uncomfortable, but that the results are rewarding.

Robbins, co-creator with Teller (the silent side of Penn & Teller), begins the show by eating a lightbulb. Seated two rows from the front in a very small house, it was easy to see that this was no trick.  And I don’t mind revealing it, since it is featured in many of their promotional materials. Of course, this is LA, and skeptics abound. One member of the audience knowing that in movies, fake glass is often created using sugar, asked to lick the lightbulb after Robbins had eaten about half of it… each sickening crunch and gulp broadcasting over his body mic.  Robbins smirked, “sure sweetheart, lick away.”  She did. “And what does it taste like?”  She replied flatly, “tastes like a lightbulb.”  Immediately, I felt a chill.  What kind of person does this?  Why? He explains that there is a technique to it, but like a kid at a scary movie we close our eyes not wanting to see and then open them again with each crunch… is he bleeding?  How can he do this at the beginning of the show and not drop dead by the end? He even drops a few pieces of glass on the floor and casually picks them up to toss into his mouth like potato chips. Crunch. It’s unnerving to say the least.

What's inside the box? Photo by Michael Lamont

What’s inside the box? Photo by Michael Lamont

Then, we are given a taste of the dark. Lights out, including exit lights and I feel something brush past me.  Something touched my leg… or did it? He tells us to touch each other. Someone taps the back of my head. Is this part of it or are my neighbors turning on me? Lights back on, he announces, “we’re never so alive as when we are scared to death.”  Ok, I’m staying.  Doors are locked (we hear bolts and chains rattling) and the show begins.  He starts with a box labeled “Albert Fish” and proceeds to tell us a chilling tale of predatory child murders… do I have you leaning in? Because that’s the effect this had on me. I felt like a kid at a campfire listening to ghost stories. His voice low and hypnotic draws you in.  As he picks up one box after another, he tells stories of murder, deception, love, loss, and longing… some sad, some grotesque, even erotic.  The stories collide into one another like strangers in the dark. All embraced by the cold hands of death.

Todd Robbins conjures a medium. Photo by Michael Lamont

Todd Robbins conjures a medium. Photo by Michael Lamont

The evening lasts about 80 minutes with no intermission and during this time you should expect a fully interactive experience with onstage audience participation. It was a humorous, hair-raising, hypnotic show. Peppered with the sarcastic one-liners Penn & Teller fans are familiar with, I laughed even as I glanced nervously around to make sure something wasn’t sneaking up behind me. Be warned, even safe in your seats, you may get sticky, splashed, touched… or killed as poor Rob in our audience was. This is an adult show with full nudity, so leave the kids at home and take a date. As Robbins revealed at the beginning of the show, he used to take people out into a local cemetery when he was a teenager and tell them stories about the people who were buried there…  and the moans he heard “were not from the dead.” I know I was glad to have someone to cling to in the dark.

This popular show has been extended through January 12.
Get your tickets while you can!

Tickets are available in person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, online at or by phone 310-208-5454