Culture

The Spectacular Mind Games of Derren Brown

Derren Brown in Derren Brown: Secret at the Cort Theatre (Matthew Murphy)
His Broadway performance makes for an astounding evening of theater.

‘My brain just exploded,” my companion said to me at the conclusion of the first act of Derren Brown: Secret. Then the second act was even freakier. Fair warning: Gray matter can be slippery, so if you should buy a ticket and make your way to Broadway’s Cort Theatre, watch underfoot. There may be exploded brains littering the floor.

If you’re like me, you tell yourself you hate magic shows but invariably find them clever and entertaining when you find yourself at one of them. Brown is more of a mentalist, using (so he tells us) carefully honed observational skills to guess, for instance, in which fist an audience member is concealing a crumpled-up $20 bill. Or he’ll scatter photos on a table, ask an audience member to rest a hand on his shoulder, and, solely by asking yes or no questions (“Does she look like a vegan?”) that the participant is instructed to answer only in his or her thoughts, guess which picture is in that person’s mind. He promises to lie to us, and evidently does, but he also promises that none of the people he uses in his act — selected seemingly at random, by Frisbees he tosses into the audience — are stooges. If so, everything he does in the second act seems utterly impossible.

Brown, a slick 47-year-old Brit who keeps up a steady stream of amusing patter throughout, is probably better known in the U.K. than here, but he has made the rounds of the talk shows and filmed several Netflix specials that will give you a taste of his act, which he describes as a throwback to the 1930s heyday of mentalists. The stage show has some treats that are specifically meant for a live audience; for instance, he promises that we’ll be so rapt by his various games that we won’t notice that a gorilla comes on stage to steal a banana — twice. I saw no gorilla, so credit to Brown. I’m not sure I would have seen a mushroom cloud, given how fast-paced and exciting he makes the evening. I also loved a joke about how Glenda Jackson was playing the gorilla because she refused to leave the building. (Jackson did a fairly annoying turn as King Lear last spring in the very same theater, and in general should serve as the butt of more jokes.)

Brown plays amazing mind games with audience members. He instantly guesses their star signs, then teases out their secrets. “Did you . . . have two circumcisions?” he asked an audience member the other night. Brown seemingly had no information about what the man was thinking about except a very short handwriting sample and the fellow’s body language, but the guy answered in the affirmative.

A woman in the audience who similarly gave no apparent clues as to what she was thinking about subsequently confessed Brown was correct about her secret: She pees in the kitchen sink. Brown warns people who are thinking about cheating on their mates to beware lest they be exposed. Yet buried thoughts such as these are not the reason the show is called “Secret,” or rather “SECRET.” The answer to that question comes spectacularly at the end, as the climax to a ridiculously complicated battery of mind-game tricks. Few standing ovations are as well-earned as the one Brown gets at the conclusion of this epic of suggestion and misdirection.

Only at the end of the show does an audience member start to grasp various ways he’s been had; Brown apparently fluffed one trick intentionally, early in the show, to make himself look honest and to plant the idea that the show is not rigged. He also pretended (it turns out) not to know the comic actor Jason Sudeikis. He seems to be able to put people in a hypnotic state with barely a touch of his hand. All very fishy. Moreover, his most elaborate trick seems to involve pushing subliminal messages contained in a film. That brief movie, a seemingly anodyne hunk of footage that looks like a lab-produced neuroscience experiment, creates in some audience members an irresistible urge to stand up and makes them putty in Brown’s hands.

Or so it appears. Who can say what’s really going on in Derren Brown: SECRET? Not I, but it’s a fantastically inventive, astounding, gripping, and altogether brain-exploding evening at the theater.

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