'Derren Brown: Secret': Theater Review

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Mind-blowing.
1/4/2020

J.J. Abrams and 'Hamilton' director Thomas Kail are among the producers of this debut Broadway appearance by the two-time Olivier-winning British mentalist.

The eponymous star doesn't make it easy on reviewers when it comes to writing about the Broadway production of Derren Brown: Secret.  "Don't talk about anything that happens in the show," the British mentalist urges audience members and any journalists in attendance at the beginning of the evening. At least, I think he says that. Frankly, after being manipulated by this master of psychological illusion for two-and-a-half hours, I don't really trust any of my perceptions anymore.

The two-time Olivier Award-winner is a major draw in his native England and has garnered many American fans with his popular Netflix specials. Now he's come to conquer Broadway with this show previously seen two years ago at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company.

It's only fair to honor Brown's request and not reveal too much about what happens in the course of the evening. It also makes for a better experience not to have too much of an idea about what's going to happen. Suffice it to say that when the show is over, the entire audience pours out into the streets heatedly asking each other if they have any clue as to how he does it.

You can be advised, however, not to take anything you see or hear at face value, including Brown's disingenuous claim, "I am always honest about my dishonesty." It would be more accurate to say that he's sometimes honest about his dishonesty, or even sometimes dishonest about his honesty. In any case, he plays the audience like a musical instrument, making us dance to his tune and making us all the more delighted when we're thoroughly befuddled.

The tricks that mentalists perform, including mind-reading, don't really vary that much from performer to performer. If you've seen such practitioners of the venerable magic genre as Marc Salem or Derek DelGuadio (not to mention Kreskin, who popularized the form in the 1970s), the basic structure of many of Brown's illusions will be familiar. The difference lies more in the style and presentation, and the dapper, handsome Brown has that down to a T. Charismatic and funny, he expertly guides his hapless volunteers through their sometimes complicated paces, occasionally having fun with them but never in a mean or nasty way.

He also shares just enough about himself to make us feel like we know him, revealing that he didn't come out as gay until he was 31 and enhancing one illusion, involving a small, locked box, with a touching and funny story about having inherited it from his grandfather. When the contents were finally revealed to the volunteer participating in the trick at the reviewed performance, she burst into tears. And even though you know you've just been hoodwinked, you might shed some as well.

There's no need to worry about being dragged onstage, although if you're terminally shy you will want to avoid catching any of the multiple Frisbees that Brown throws into the crowd for recruitment purposes. Not that he suffers from any shortage of volunteers, judging by the eager responses he elicits from audience members apparently desperate to have Brown reveal their innermost thoughts and deepest secrets to a roomful of strangers.

It's easy to suspect that Brown achieves his effects with the help of audience plants, something he ardently denies. But if he does, the show's budget must be pretty generous, considering how many people are involved. One of the evening's highlights comes when he blindfolds himself and proceeds to divine the thoughts of random audience members scattered throughout the auditorium. Adding to the fun is the astonished reactions of people who can't imagine how he knows they once danced naked on top of a bar or have a birthmark shaped like Australia.

There are times when the proceedings threaten to devolve into hokiness, such as the segment involving the screening of a short video, prefaced by Brown warning about the dangers of watching it (pregnant women, among others, are advised to close their eyes and cover their ears) and advising that some people may experience an irresistible urge to stand up afterward. But damn if that doesn't actually happen to several people (although thankfully, not to me), in an example of either mass hypnosis or mass hysteria.

The evening's final trick, featuring several audience members coming onstage and drawing pictures of animals, goes on for so long and to such little initial effect you begin to fear that Brown is squandering his opportunity for a big finale. No need to worry, since he ties it all together with a masterful flourish, including the filmed participation of a celebrity; it will make you realize the folly of trusting that anything that occurred previously was the slightest bit random.

The show, directed by Andy Nyman and Andrew O'Connor, who co-wrote the material with Brown, is infused with a theatrical polish that makes its substantial running time fly by. By the time it's over, you'll be thrilled you've been so oblivious to the evening's devilish machinations that you somehow didn't see a man in a gorilla suit snatching a banana from a podium onstage in plain view. Not once, but twice.

Venue: Cort Theatre, New York
Performer: Derren Brown
Writers: Andy Nyman, Derren Brown, Andrew O'Connor
Directors: Andrew O'Connor, Andy Nyman
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff
Projection designer: Caite Hevner
Presented by J.J. Abrams, Thomas Kail, Jeffrey Seller, Michael Vine, Andrew O'Connor, Derren Brown, Paul Sandler for Vaudeville NY, Atlantic Theater Company, Mirvish Productions, Spencer Ross, Oliver Roth