Derren Brown’s résumé reads like the list of charges against a supervillain. The British mentalist has persuaded a woman to electrocute a kitten, played Russian roulette on live television, and programmed an upstanding citizen to assassinate Stephen Fry. (Don’t worry: The kitten, and Stephen Fry, are fine.) Now he’s taken his crimes against humanity stateside. Brown makes his U.S. theatrical debut in Secret, running at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through June 25. The Off-Broadway one-man show is dazzling, but this isn’t magic by way of Vegas: There are no fog machines, no barfed-up live frogs, no choreography set to “The Final Countdown.” Secret — co-written by Brown and directors Andrew Nyman and Andrew O’Connor — is much more understated, fueled by manipulation and suggestion.
A 46-year-old native of Croydon, London, Brown is a magnetic presence, armed with a sharp wit and an irresistible grin. But the show is largely about its audience. Some people are selected to participate when they catch a Frisbee randomly tossed by Brown from the stage. Other ticket holders are seemingly mind-read from the comfort of their seats: You in the suspenders, you’re a neuroscientist who originally studied physics, aren’t you? And you — you work in publishing, and you’ve had three threesomes. Afterward, spectators interrogate one another about what they’ve seen and how it could be possible, eyeing each other with suspicion and bewilderment as they walk to the subway. Early on, Brown asks that the audience keep the show’s contents a secret. That’s a request I’m happy to oblige, and not only because I think my description would fail to capture the eerie madness of both the second act and Secret’s climax.
On a recent afternoon before a show, at Black Cat on the Lower East Side, Brown is far more inconspicuous. Wearing a gray cap and toting both a Leica camera and a “stupid big rucksack,” the out-of-character illusionist is polite and modest. Over the years, Brown has remarked that he’s “honest about his dishonesty,” the methods by which he deceives his audience, and that pledge applies here. “My toolkit is just the words I’m using and the effect they’re having,” he tells me of Secret. “Much of it is about language, as opposed to sleight of hand.” The mechanisms by which the illusions work are invisible, yet right in front of you.
Secret is essentially a greatest-hits compilation of pieces from Brown’s seven previous stage shows, which span fifteen years. “The main thing was, for a new audience, to set out my skills and at the same time put quotation marks around some of those skills, so I’m not just someone who’s pretending to be a mind reader,” he says. Those quotation marks are key to Brown’s appeal: An undercurrent of skepticism has long characterized his career. In his 2005 special Messiah, he convinced several prominent figures that he shared their paranormal abilities, apparently communing with the dead and sensing strangers’ medical histories by touch — but all through decidedly unsupernatural means. Brown is known for discussing the practical and scientific principles that undergird his illusions. You could cobble together a Psych 101 syllabus out of the concepts referenced in his oeuvre: the ideomotor effect, change blindness, the Milgram experiment.
Brown is famous enough in England to have appeared as himself on Sherlock and to have been referenced in the fiftieth-anniversary special of Doctor Who. He even has his own theme park ride: Derren Brown’s Ghost Train, at Thorpe Park. Although the public demand for selfies can get a “bit out of hand” back home, it’s hardly a chore: “It’s lovely to feel you live in a world where a lot of people have decided that they like you before they met you.”
With a capacity of just 199, the Linda Gross Theater is unusually intimate for the West End veteran, who’s accustomed to playing venues ten times that size. He loves it: “It’s just the connection. Somehow two hundred people — even if it’s only fifty or a hundred within the two hundred that are going mad — you feel like a rock star.” Performing in England, Brown had grown used to group responses, a collective “wodge of appreciation.” But he’s found that American audience members respond as individuals, readily contributing a “No way!” or even a “No fucking way!” “Which makes sense,” he says. “When you walk around the streets here, everybody is stepped-up. People are up front about who they are. The eccentric old women are eccentric. They’ve literally got the fur coats and the little dogs. It’s like Disney’s cast everyone.”
The unifying theme of Secret is that the stories we tell ourselves limit the way we think. “We’re certainly in an era where stories are being manipulated all the time,” Brown says. Audience members are warned that their deepest secrets may have a way of making themselves known during the show. In the performance I attended, it was revealed that a man had, the night before, peed in a deserted aisle of a Duane Reade. But one of the first secrets shared onstage belonged to Brown himself, a devout Christian in his youth: He realized he was gay at 15, but didn’t come out until 31. “I’ve always been a loner,” he says. “I think it’s quite common with magicians. Any sort of magic you do to impress people, so you’re only going to do that if you don’t feel very impressive in yourself.”
Brown’s recent work on television showcases much to be impressed about. For 2012’s Apocalypse, the production team spent months preparing an elaborate scenario to deceive a shiftless young man into believing he’d survived a catastrophic meteor shower, which had been specifically engineered to inspire him to tap into reservoirs of strength he didn’t know he had. In the two-part Fear and Faith, from 2012, Brown helped people overcome phobias that include walking over bridges and singing in public. Could a supervillain learn to use his powers for the greater good? “That’s become a recurring theme, trying to use that ‘mind world’ to present ideas that are worth thinking about, as opposed to just tricks and so on. These [specials] have meant a huge amount to me because they mean a lot more. A lot of the other shows are just me going, ‘Aren’t I clever?’ It’s not that interesting.”
With Secret’s run nearing a close, Brown has “zero ambition” to embark on any pre-charted career path, or to “conquer America.” He has his days free to explore New York through the lens of his Leica, shooting portraits of chess hustlers in Union Square or boardwalk strollers on Coney Island. “By going out with the camera, it makes me much more engaged with life,” he says. “People see the camera and go, ‘Oh, it’s a guy with a camera,’ so they don’t do the second stage of going, ‘Oh, it’s that guy with a camera.’ ” Invisible, yet right in front of them.
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Through June 25