Derren Brown: Secret
Written by Andy Nyman, Derren Brown & Andrew O’Connor
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
One of the more popular attractions in the golden age of vaudeville was the mind reader—not a person with any special psi powers, but an otherwise perfectly normal person who had sharpened their skills of observation and their knowledge of human nature to the point that they could infer what audience members were thinking with uncanny accuracy.
Some were so good, it seemed like magic.
Fast forward to the present. Vaudeville is vanished, but mind readers like Broadway’s current Derren Brown still ply their trade with a sophistication and a psychological precision that their forebears could only dream of.
Brown, currently starring in Derren Brown: Secret, honed his craft in the U.K. and now comes to Broadway with a solo show that presents itself as pure entertainment, but which carries implications of how easy it is to fool crowds of people who naively trust in their own eyes and ears.
Brown constantly undercuts your skepticism. Are his audience-participation subjects carefully planted ringers? No, he chooses them by scaling a Frisbee-like disc into the house at random. Is he substituting one card or envelope for another through sleight-of-hand? No, he puts such object in the hands of an audience member for safekeeping. He then goes on to tell such people intimate details of their lives and things they have in their pockets, exclusively by reading their body language, their age, the slight changes of emphasis in words they say. Responding to audience gasps of amazement, he assures them, “I have no psychic ability.”
Moreover, he explains some of his feats in advance, or appears to. “I’m honest about my dishonesty,” he says. He warns you that he will bamboozle you, and then goes ahead and does it, all the while wearing the quiet assurance and smug smile of a master con man.
Brown is so good at directing your attention exactly where he pleases, that at one point an assistant in a gorilla suit was able to come onstage and remove a strategically placed envelope without the audience seeing it. It wasn’t invisible; Brown was just forcing you to look elsewhere at that moment because he knows how to do it and he knows that you will succumb to his covert misdirection. Magicians make a science of this. So do many politicians.
The show’s climax is a twenty-minute tour de force epic of divination involving multiple bemused audience members, multiple sealed envelopes, locked boxes, answers written before the show begins, a pre-recorded video, a song sung by a Saturday Night Live cast member, and even the long-promised revelation about the true meaning of the play’s title.
At the finale you’re left with a true sense of exhilaration at Brown’s skill, along with a sobering realization that people, including you, are so easy to “read”—and to manipulate.
Derren Brown: Secret is scheduled to play a limited run through Jan. 4, 2020 at the Cort Theatre on Broadway.