by Michael Bracken
In the UK, he’s won two Olivier Awards for his work onstage and sparked controversy on television by encouraging people to push a man off a roof and suffocating himself in a plastic bag. (No one was hurt in either instance.) But don’t worry, Derren Brown is on good behavior as he makes his American theatrical debut at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.
So, who is Derren Brown anyway? Truth be told, he defies categorization. But certain basics emerge from his eponymous solo performance Derren Brown: Secret, which he wrote along with Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor.
First and foremost, Brown is an entertainer. He clearly loves being in the spotlight and makes you feel like he belongs there. His claim to fame is his extraordinary ability in a unique niche in the field of magic, nestled somewhere between the specialties of the psychic and the psychological.
Mentalist, mind reader, illusionist – they all apply but none tells the whole story. He’s an enigma, and his persona is so deeply imbued into what he does that actor and act reinforce each other, creating an air of mystery and impenetrability that’s intriguing yet also the tiniest bit off-putting in that you can’t get close to him.
Brown loves being in control, something that goes with the legerdemain territory but has never struck me quite so strongly with others in the field. A benevolent despot, he nonetheless revels in being the one to say who does what where and when.
While the “volunteer from the audience” is a staple of most magic shows, Secret distinguishes itself by relying exclusively on audience interaction to showcase its star’s abilities. There are no scantily clad assistants, no self-sufficient tricks with birds or playing cards or scarves.
The result is refreshingly direct, and the audience members who participate seem to enjoy themselves. And a quick note for skeptics: while it is certainly possible (as it always is) that every one of the volunteers is a plant, that seems particularly unlikely given their sheer number and the variety of ways they’re recruited, the most common being retrieval of frisbee-like disks tossed into the audience by Brown.
Brown doesn’t talk much about how he does what he does, but he does mention, near the top of the show, that he deals in psychological observation. An exercise that started out with the entire house, has been winnowed down to a single woman standing onstage. It’s a twist on the which-hand-has-the-money-routine, where she has the money and he must guess the hand. Brown explains that he can figure out the answer by the tension the woman does or does not exhibit in each arm. He speaks body language fluently.
Another critical element of Brown’s appeal is his respect for the audience with which he interacts. He’s not above poking fun at his volunteers, but he’s never snarky or condescending.
Brown’s feats consist of unearthing what his volunteers are thinking or sizing them up and predicting where they will end up a few displacements down the line. He communicates his conclusions to the audience in some unexpected, backhanded way. One instance has several numbered audience members who are assigned animals to draw, then switch numbers and places and animals with each other, like a giant game of mobile Pictionary. Of course, they end up exactly where Brown predicts they will.
Another sequence involves a volunteer secretly imagining a celebrity – Marilyn Monroe at the performance I attended – whom Brown draws right in front of us without seeming to.
In Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Tom says that the stage magician “gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth,” while he gives you “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Derren Brown falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum, leaving us wondering where fact ends and fiction begins.
Derren Brown: Secret. Through June 25 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.atlantictheater.org. 2 hours 25 minutes with one intermission.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster