Many, many years ago, boys and girls, they used to have outdoor rock concerts on Pier 84 on the West Side. I remember seeing tons of bands there at one point: you could drink cheap under-age beers, and there were promoters giving out free packs of crappy cigarettes. I mean, can you picture that happening now? I can't remember everyone I saw there, but I do know I saw The Psychedelic Furs (awful), The Cure, The Smiths and other people I can no longer remember. They were all-ages and general admission shows and afterward, we would walk over to Times Square and go to the (now departed) Howard Johnson's.
It was essentially a diner with a ticky tacky bar at the back, and they'd let you sit there for hours nursing your diet coke. It was late at night and aside from us and some of the usual late night Times Square weirdos, there was always a table of magicians. I can't remember if we recognized Penn & Teller from television or what (this was around '86, long before they were as famous as they are now), but we somehow wound up chatting with them one night.
A couple of years later, when I was 18, I saw Penn & Teller's show off-Broadway with my boyfriend at the time who was (among other things) a juggler who had attended the Ringling Bros's school down in Florida. As you can see, there has been a kind of striking consistency to my life. I was plucked from the audience and levitated (see below).
Fast forward a decade or so, and I'm working at FringeNYC where one of the first things I hear about our Production Manager is that her boyfriend eats light bulbs. When I met him, he seemed terribly dapper and affable and not at all what I pictured when I heard he ate light bulbs. Well, my former co-worker is now Mrs. Todd Robbins, they have a delightful son, and I've seen him perform many, many times over the past decade or so: at FringeNYC, off-Broadway, and at Monday Night Magic. Todd Robbins is something of a carnivalesque Renaissance Man: actor, sideshow freak, Ragtime piano player (he performs frequently with Woody Allen's band), and magician. For a long and entertaining post about Mr. Robbins, go here. If you walk past the sideshow at Coney Island, and you hear a voice beckoning to you from the loudspeakers: that voice is his.
All this self-indulgent prelude brings me to the spooky wonderment that is Todd Robbins's and Teller's Play Dead. I'm embarrassed to say, that last weekend was the first time I'd seen it, as it's been open for some months now. I blathered endlessly about myself, partly because I don't want to say too much about the show as so many of its pleasures are contingent on surprise.
As you enter the Players Theater on Bleecker, you first see a dire warning above the Box Office. That if you are claustrophobic or prone to panic attacks, please alert the staff before entering, as parts of the show are performed in total darkness. Now: I am someone who is claustrophobic and prone to panic attacks and all sorts of general jumpiness. But, this is a spook show and I intended to be scared. And I was. And I was completely and thoroughly entertained. The show is full of magic and scares and tall tales and misdirection and gaffs and frights. In other words, it is a near perfect thing.
I love horror, but as I've mentioned in this blog before, I am seriously distressed by what passes for entertainment, what I like to call "torture porn". I don't understand it and I think it points to a sickness in our culture that people watch such fare as "entertainment". Todd's horror and frights are of a more old fashioned sort, and he demonstrated that if done right, with great authenticity and skill, they can be very scary indeed. At bottom, the show works because Todd is such a terrific performer and teller of tales. This total scardy-cat knew she was in thoroughly good hands when the lights went out.
Even if those hands were covered in blood.
(Photo credits: picture of Todd Robbins by Carol Rosegg, picture of Howard Johnson's via ephemeralnewyork)