Review: Being Brainwashed Into Joy in Derren Brown’s ‘Secret’

Until I remember a very similar moment from an earlier version of “Secret,” staged Off Broadway in 2017 by the Atlantic Theater Company. The current incarnation of that show, directed by Andrew O’Connor and Andy Nyman (and written by them and Mr. Brown), is expert in creating that most essential of theatrical illusions, that everything we see is occurring for the first time. The show feels, if anything, more at home — and oddly, more intimate — in a Broadway palace than it did in a house many times smaller.

Appropriately, its production design — by a team that includes Takeshi Kata (set), Ben Stanton (lighting), Jill BC Du Boff (sound) and Caite Hevner (projections) — has a feeling of near nakedness, with no visible screens or conveniently multidrawered furniture for purposes of concealment. And Mr. Brown’s elegant suits — a dark three-piece for the first act, and white tie and tails for the second — are far too closely tailored for trick-harboring sleeves.

Mr. Brown belongs to the contemporary of school of mentalists and magicians (including Penn and Teller and the great Ricky Jay, who died last year) who practice what might be called half-full disclosure. That means they aren’t going to tell us how they do what they do, but they will admit that there’s nothing uncanny about their art.

As a showman, Mr. Brown has none of the smarminess of Las Vegas prestidigitators or carnival hucksters. He feels nonsynthetic in his smoothness, and his jokes directed at the audience stay carefully on the sunny side of insults. (The most damning indictment comes early, via a video sequence that turns us all into happily bleating sheep.)

All of us, he says, have secrets. And he tells us about one he kept until he was 31: He’s gay. So what? you may think. And that, he goes on to say, was the general response to his coming out. Secrets are what keep us all unnecessarily “trapped inside our own heads.” In other words, he really is just like us.

Then again, if that’s the case, how on earth does Mr. Brown manage to pull out of the air — after asking a few innocuous general questions — the secret shared by a Scottish couple sitting in the mezzanine? Or how about what the middle-aged woman a few rows away from them had been planning with a certain male friend?

And how about — yeah, how about — that extraordinary finale, in which six audience members help Mr. Brown finally disclose the secret that gives this show its title? Like the concluding scene of a Shakespearean romance, it interlaces a variety of jangling, disparate elements into the semblance of cosmic harmony. And God help me, I found myself in happy tears at a magic show.


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