Teller, the silent partner in the magic-comedy duo Penn & Teller, stabs his knife into the gravy-spattered meat loaf before him and puzzles over how to make the off-Broadway show he has co-written and directed scarier.
"Play Dead" has just had its first New York preview. Sitting in a Greenwich Village restaurant next door to the Player's Theater where the play opens Nov. 11, Teller worries that the show isn't there yet, despite the genuinely panicked screams emanating from the crowd that evening.
"I want the audience to really wonder: If the dead could come back, would you want them to?" Teller explains.
The show walks a thin line, trying to scare audiences out of their wits while reassuring them of their safety. It's a delicate balance and one that Teller likens to "choreographing a Busby Berkeley dance spectacle with all of your dancers in blindfolds."
"Play Dead" doesn't lack for scary material: There are cannibalistic child serial killers and beheaded rats; light bulbs are devoured like potato chips and at least one audience member is killed each evening. Audience members' dead relatives speak from beyond the grave amid legions of bats, hordes of spiders, gaggles of ghosts and bath-loads of blood.
The tension is ratcheted up further by all the pre-show safety advisories _ cell phones must be turned off completely to ensure complete darkness and standing up when the lights are turned off is strictly forbidden. It quickly becomes clear that aisle seats are not for the faint of heart.
Still, Teller is intent on tightening the action to the edge of panic.
"There may be enough fear around in our culture that it might be a nice idea to spend an evening using fear just to delight you," Teller says of the play that draws on Midnight Spook shows and spiritualist seances for source material.
Spook shows were a phenomenon across America from the 1930s up until the 1970s when magicians would take over a movie theater on Saturday nights after the last showing and decorate them like haunted houses, creating a venue for potentially scary tricks like sawing a woman in half.
"It was mainly for teenagers who love to be thrown in the dark together," Teller says. "Some were good. OK, most were terrible _ some old drunk, misfit magician would decorate the place with skulls."
For the finale, someone dressed as a mummy or werewolf would usually charge into the audience as the theater was plunged into total darkness, giving the teenagers an excuse to grope one another.
"Play Dead" also draws on the experiences of the show's star and co-author Todd Robbins, whose lifelong obsession with seances, carnies and geeks lends the show an added creepiness.
"I saw a sideshow act when I was 12, and I was hooked by the sword swallowing, fire-eating, the tricks that weren't tricks," says Robbins, whose high-voltage smile can turn into a devilish grin on a dime. "In our show, what you think is fake is probably real, and what you think is real is probably fake."
For Robbins, the show's success depends on a trick as old as theater itself: the suspension of disbelief.
"The show has to flow without having a moment when the audience will pull back and say, 'I don't believe it,'" says Robbins, admitting that he envies and models his character after the spiritualist ministers who make a show of channeling the dead at seances. "When you have belief on your side, you don't have to work as hard as I do every night."