Critics and audiences are sworn to secrecy – well, requested politely but firmly to do so – by the masterful British magician (or take your pick: mentalist, hypnotist, “psychological illusionist”) at the start of his bewildering, beguiling Broadway debut Derren Brown: Secret, opening tonight at the Cort Theatre. So no spoiler alerts needed here – even to describe what goes on, much less reveal the outcomes, would be to ruin the show for anyone who intends to see it on Broadway or whatever no-brainer filmed special spins from it.
So descriptors, all accurate, will have to suffice. Stunning. Captivating. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Etc. Even his previous Netflix specials can’t quite capture the dizzying buzz of watching him do what he does in person.
Nor will I make any attempts at debunking here, except to note that I’m a complete and total non-believer in all things supernatural, including mentalism, mind reading, psychic connections, the act-like-a-chicken showbiz brand of hypnotism. I’m skeptical, to say the least, of Brown’s pseudo-scientific claims of reading subliminal facial cues and body language to mine audience members’ secrets (more about that word – the show’s title – later), suspecting the patter is a canny (or would that be uncanny?) application of the profession’s standbys: misdirection and plausible diversion.
But any such suspicions didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this show, written by Brown with his directors Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, for so much as a millisecond. Even knowing there’s bound to be a rational explanation for what and how Brown does what he does – and what he does can often be thrilling – only adds to the pleasure of seeing a master with unfathomable expertise.
For the record, Brown himself makes no claim to psychic ability. Like the best of recent generations of magicians, from Penn & Teller to Derek DelGaudio, Brown, by his words and, indeed, his very existence, is a debunker of the frauds and con artists who pick pockets while claiming to chat with the dearly departed, read minds or see the future (you – and they – know who they are, and maybe you’ve even watched their TV shows). Brown does what they do without the spiritual hokum.
And like DelGaudio, whose phenomenal In and Of Itself was staged last year Off Broadway just as Secret had been in 2017, Brown – famous in the U.K. from years of TV performances – has caught the attention of Hollywood heavyweights. No less than J.J. Abrams is a producer of this Broadway engagement (as is Hamilton director Thomas Kail and that show’s producer Jeffrey Seller).
There’s no mystery in the attraction. Brown, in his well-tailored suits or, as in the second act, a tailed tux of retro style, is a wonderful showman, funny, confiding, by turns intimate and flashy vaudevillian. Performing on a mostly bare stage bathed in Ben Stanton’s gorgeous lighting design of shifting color, Brown displays little of Teller’s silent poignance, even less of DelGaudio’s gut-punch melancholy. He’s unfailingly jovial with his audience, even when revealing some of its secrets (threats, and sometimes more, of disclosing infidelities has been a running joke of Brown’s at least since the Off Broadway days; Secret isn’t recommended for kids under 12).
Since, presumably, each such revelation is particular to a specific performance, I can say without spoiling anyone’s evening that the night I was there Brown announced to a stunned married couple that one had received a kidney from the other.
I take Brown’s word that he employs no audience plants or stooges, and if or when there’s off-stage assistance from ear-whisperers or well-placed cameras (both entirely conjectural on my part) the collaborations are accomplished with absolute see-no-strings skill. Certainly other illusionists have performed similar feats (DelGaudio did the audience secret reveal, more or less, with each and every visitor). Any guesses I have of how Brown manages to, say, place an item with a just-revealed name in a most unlikely location would be merely that – a guess, and quite possibly wrong (though I don’t think so, which is half the fun.)
Ok, so maybe I can hint at some of what you’ll see without giving too much away or breaking any pledges. There’s a marvelous bit involving Brown’s painting of a celebrity portrait, no less impressive if one suspects the anguish over each brushstroke is merely one of those plausible diversions.
Early in Secret, Brown tells of coming out as gay at age 31 after having carefully, and with no small bit of shame, guarded and suppressed his secret truth since his teenage years. And while that’s not the secret of the title – he gets to that by and by – the personal anecdote, delivered humorously, even casually, is actually crucial in setting up all that follows: Brown presents himself as so honest and forthright that he’s even honest and forthright about his occasional dishonesty. Think of it as verbal sleight of hand, delivered so smoothly and with such charming nonchalance that you’d never suspect its teller has secrets that will make you question your own lying eyes.
Derren Brown: Secret opens tonight at Broadway’s Cort Theatre and will play a strictly limited engagement through Saturday, January 4, 2020.