Derren Brown: Secret
A well-known mentalist from the U.K. makes his American theatrical debut at Atlantic Theater Company.
At the top of Derren Brown: Secret, the titular performer offers up a request specifically to those writing about the show: Don't discuss what happens.
That's a ballsy demand to give a reviewer, especially considering how notable Secret is. It's the first time that Brown, a beloved British mentalist, has brought his act to the United States. It's also the first time that the off-Broadway mainstay Atlantic Theater Company has programmed a magic show as part of its traditional off-Broadway season. But we'll happily acquiesce to Brown's plea. Secret is an astounding piece of psychological theater, and not knowing anything about it makes the experience all the more mind-blowing.
In his native England, Brown is a major celebrity, recipient of two Olivier Awards who is still able to sell out arenas. On television, he has played (and survived) a round of Russian roulette; convinced a group of people, through the guise of a motivational seminar, to commit armed robbery; correctly predicted the British lottery; and, perhaps most famously, convinced a man to assassinate the beloved media personality Stephen Fry via hypnosis.
Brown is upfront with the audience, letting them know his means are based on body language and other psychological tells; he also happily admits that he doesn't claim to possess supernatural powers the way mediums do. Secret challenges audiences to look at the ways our personal mythology guides our lives. Some of the routines are fairly easy to explain when we go over them in our minds, based on sleight of hand and subliminal messaging placed discreetly throughout Takeshi Kata's vaudevillian set. Other tricks are completely inexplicable, to the point that even when we think we've figured it out, we remember another facet of the experience that leaves us back at square one. The first-act finale is as thrilling and mind-boggling as any of the great curtain-closers from the entire canon of American drama.
Like all great illusionists, Brown is the perfect salesman. He's a handsome, funny guy in a nice suit who talks quickly but calmly, and manages to explain everything with such assurance that we come to believe every word he says. Even though, as he states early on, his act hinges on "the power of the perfectly placed lie." Those falsehoods, which he cops to but doesn't reveal, are what make Secret so much fun (that, and the audience participation, which is bound to make just about everyone who goes onstage deliciously uncomfortable).
Cowritten and directed by Andrew O'Connor and Andy Nyman, the two-and-a-half hours of Secret fly by. We put our faith solely in Brown's hands, and willingly allow him to manipulate the way we look at the world. His trickery arouses such conflict within us that it really does affect the way we look at personal narratives. It is bound to make audiences want to see it again, if only to pay attention to different moments. Just don't give them away.