REVIEW: The enthralling psychological manipulation of “Derren Brown: Secret”
Following his first mind-blowing trick, British mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown asks his audience to join their brethren of former attendees in maintaining the magic of his brilliantly suspenseful and thrilling one-man show by not giving away any of its secrets by, say, describing his acts with any detail.
What’s a critic to do?
After sitting quite literally on the edge of my seat for all deliciously enchanting two hours and thirty minutes of “Derren Brown: Secret”, a dumb smile slapped across my face, I would not dare spoil the magic by divulging anything too specific.
The truth is, though, while I have my suspicions, I can’t say with certainty how Mr. Brown does what he does—and that is precisely what makes “Derren Brown: Secret”, which opened on Sunday evening for a limited run through January 4th at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, such an enthralling outing. In fact, so enthralling that it is back in New York following an acclaimed run at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater in 2017.
Every magician has his trademark. Mr. Brown’s is “psychological manipulation”.
A compelling performer at the top of his game, he delivers his well-honed, seemingly impossible feats of illusion with a perfect dose of panache—who doesn’t love a tuxedo and a British accent?—and a winning showmanship that simultaneously make the piece worthy of its Broadway trappings while remaining accessible and downright entertaining.
Co-written with directors Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, the entire show comprises a series of master manipulation of the conscious and unconscious minds of the audience as Mr. Brown, on a mostly-bare stage with the aid of some props, illuminates the way the secrets we keep and the stories we tell—both in observation and as explicit acts of storytelling—shape our reality.
With the help of a healthy stream of audience members selected through a gleeful and random toss of a frisbee (actually, several) out into the auditorium, Mr. Brown repeatedly challenges our senses of perception and logic—and wins at every turn.
I have never paid much attention to the world of magicians, mentalists, and illusionists, but have come to discover that the medium is one I quite enjoy. While I am comfortably at peace knowing that there are some impossible tricks I will never understand, Mr. Brown’s presentation elevates the form to such a degree that I picked my jaw up from off of the floor and emerged from the theatre a true believer, grinning from ear to ear.
Of course, Mr. Brown takes pains to explain that he has no magic powers or psychic abilities, and never uses “stooges or plants to achieve his work”, which makes the result of his sequences all the more mystifying.
While some might bemoan the increase in limited engagement “special theatrical events” on Broadway like Mr. Brown’s show, “The Illusionists” (coming back in November), and the recent summer slate of comedians (Mel Brooks and Dave Chappelle) and musical acts (Regina Spektor and Barry Manilow) booked at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre, Broadway has always been home to such diverse offerings beyond our current, calcified “play or musical” dichotomy.
Vaudeville, for which Broadway stages were the preeminent venues in the nation, consisted of variety shows more akin to these “nontheatrical” offerings than what we today think of as a Broadway show. And concerts have always been popular fare (paging Liza Minnelli).
Of course, a magic show, from the most mainstream to the more highbrow, is inherently theatrical and belongs on stage. I could not shake the feeling, while attending “Derren Brown: Secret”, that the very tradition of it was harkening back to an earlier form of entertainment—a somewhat forgotten or overlooked art form revived now in its highest expression.
My hunch was confirmed by Mr. Brown when he explained that an act consuming most of the second half of the show is one that was a craze in the 1930s. Mentalists were, indeed, the rage in that time period, and after attending this show, I understand why.
The only secret I will tell is that the meaning of the title reference, alluded to throughout the entire evening, is revealed in the end. If you want to find out what it is, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Bottom Line: Prepare to have your mind blown by British mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown during his brilliantly suspenseful and thrilling one-man magic show: “Derren Brown: Secret”. Entertaining and enthralling, you might just emerge from the theatre a true believer.
“Derren Brown: Secret”
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: September 15, 2019
Final Performance: January 4, 2019