In his Broadway debut, Derren Brown performs some dozen mind games and magic tricks over 150 minutes that depend on audience participation, all of which are meant to provoke us to ask: “How did he do that?” I sometimes shared in that reaction. But I had another question too: ”Is this all there is?”
A well-known performer, author and television celebrity in the U.K. (where, according to his bio, “his name is now pretty much synonymous with the art of psychological manipulation”) Brown is a congenial entertainer who makes an effort in the show to distinguish himself from your standard wand-waver. He doesn’t wave a wand, for one. He also says “I don’t believe I have psychic abilities,” before he then selects individual audience members to tell them something about themselves. (“You had a mole removed from your buttocks.”) At several points, he waxes philosophical, positing that the human urge to create a narrative about ourselves limits our perception. At times, he gets personal. We all have secrets, he says, and tells us one of his own: He didn’t come out as gay until he was 31 years old.
Brown tries to win us over by being not just personable, pointed, and personal, but admitting that he’s fallible. In his first trick, he asked us all to stand and put both hands behind our back, then put a coin in either the right or the left hand. This launched an extensive culling process from which he eventually picked a woman in the audience to come up on stage. Simply by using logic (what had been her coin-holding strategy up to this point?) and reading her body language, Brown promised to figure out which of her hands held the money. He guessed right several times. He then gave her a $50 bill and said, if he picked the wrong hand this time, she could keep the money. He picked the wrong hand. “I guess this is going to be a shortened evening,” he joked. “This should lower your expectations.”
My theater companion is convinced this was a ploy, that Brown deliberately invested $50 to convince the audience this was all “real,” that he was performing without a net. Even if so, it kept my attention.
I can’t say that for all the tricks. During the performance, Brown asked us to keep them all a secret (a request I’ve already violated), so I’ll only talk about the general pattern for many of them. He recruited audience members through an elaborate process, often involving the throwing of Frisbees (instructing only those between, say, the ages of 18 to 50 to try to catch them.) This was apparently to assure us that the “volunteers” were not confederates. Then he would ask them to do something – select a question, or photograph, or an animal, and hide it from Brown — and then Brown would reveal what their selection had been.
There were exceptions to this pattern. One was a clever exercise in misdirection that involved, among other things, a banana and a man in a gorilla suit…and I’ll tell you no more – other than it leads to a striking Act I finale. In another, the entire audience watches what he warns us is a dangerous film, which is the start of what eventually wound up being a labyrinthine and extravagant trick that took up the entire second Act.
It occurred to me during “Derren Brown: Secret” that the best magic tricks should be like the best jokes, at least when presented by professionals to a paying audience. The punch line is only one part of a joke told by a stand-up comic; the best comedians also take great care in how they get to the punch line – how they tell the story, their facial expressions and body language, tone of voice, asides. As charismatic as Brown is as an entertainer, the payoff for too many of his tricks in “Derren Brown: Secret” just didn’t feel worth their time-consuming and unremarkable set-ups.
It doesn’t help that the Cort is five times the size of the Off-Broadway theater where Brown’s act originated two years ago. This made many of the set-ups more tedious, since it took longer for the selected audience member to come down from the mezzanine, or for the audience to line up at intermission and deposit their secret, sealed questions, or for the videographer to focus the live camera on the volunteer up in the balcony and give him a microphone, so we can hear him admit that, yes, he had a mole removed.
The producers recommend that audience members be at least 12 years old, because “there is a cerebral nature to the performance and the duration of the show may cause issues with concentration.” Such issues affected at least one person over 12 as well.
Derren Brown: Secret
Written by Andy Nyman, Derren Brown and Andrew O’Connor
Directed by Andrew O’Connor and Andy Nyman.
Scenic design by Takeshi Kata, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Jill BC Du Boff, projection design by Caite Hevner
Cast: Derren Brown and the audience
Running time: Two and a half hours with one intermission
Tickets: $49 to $179
“Derren Brown: Secret” is on stage at the Cort through January 4, 2020