‘Derren Brown: Secret’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
“I’m not a sheep or a follower,” suggested psychological manipulator Darren Brown to the audience during the opening moments of Secret, his how’d-he-do-that evening of wonders that opened this week at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. But that’s exactly what we were. And him, to a certain extent. Whisking us away with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (thank you, RuPaul, but no drag here), Brown’s captivating act is, while not wholly original, wildly entertaining.
How can that be, you might ask, as Brown surveys the audience with the assistance of a video crew, shouting out personal anecdotes extracted from the minds of the captivated audience. Brown recently said in a New York Times interview that he “attributes some tricks to a split-second analysis of nonverbal communication.” It’s a polished skill but doesn’t explain other segments of the show, which loosely threads together the theatre’s collective observations through compelling narratives, visual sleights of hand, and, for lack of a better word, mind reading.
Brown made us promise not to reveal the details of his act to not spoil it for future audience members. I’m a man of my word but curious as to how much of Brown’s script (written in collaboration with Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor) remains constant from evening to evening. What’s even more compelling to me is Brown himself, who identifies as gay and welcomes the audience into his world with candid vulnerability. He cherry-picked specific types of participants for various acts, at one point requesting men between the ages of 20 and 50, then acknowledging the outdated binary restraints of the request, which made me wonder why the parameters were there in the first place.
While whole entertained, I may have been more flummoxed had I not seen Scott Silven’s Wonders at Dusk at the McKittrick Hotel’s Club Car last year. Much of Brown’s act draws from a similar framework, albeit with a bit more Broadway pizazz thanks to Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s focused lighting, and mood-setting sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Twenty years older than Silven, it’s likely that Brown was mastering his technique while the former was still in diapers. Both performers follow a long legacy of mentalists such as Jack Galloway, Theo Annemann and others.
Captivating regardless of the origin of his tricks, Brown dangles just enough information to keep those watching utterly engaged. Perhaps his biggest secret is Brown’s ability to tug at your heartstrings as well as read your mind.
Derren Brown: Secret
138 West 48th Street, NYC
Through January 4, 2020
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and alumnus of The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more at wexlerwrites.com.