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Derren Brown
Credit: Ahron R. Foster

Looking trim and dashing in a three-piece brown suit, Derren Brown steps onstage at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. He asks all 200 people in the audience to rise out of their seats and put their hands behind their backs. This is not a religious revival meeting and Brown is not an evangelical minister. He’s one of the world’s most celebrated mentalists — but you could be forgiven for not fully appreciating the difference. (For a taste of his style, check out Brown’s official YouTube page here.)

Over the course of the next two-and-a-half hours, Brown dumbfounds with a stunning colonnade of tricks, physical and psychological, limned by the sensation of third-rail danger. Running through June 25, the show marks the American stage debut for Brown, a witty, likable former lawyer from England. Since it is literally called Secret, reviewers are obliged to keep the details just that. And besides, without proper context, it’ll make no sense to talk here about the snake, elephant, camel, kangaroo, sheep, tiger and gorilla that appear onstage. (But they do indeed.)

Plus, by its very nature, every performance is a bit different. At last Friday’s show, Brown spoke to a man in the audience and correctly guessed that the man had recently discovered, with the help of a doctor, a third nipple on his chest. Later, this same audience member was (by coincidence, Brown insists) brought onstage and asked to pick a number between one and five. “I’d reckon you like three, don’t you?” Brown deadpanned.

He’s quick on his feet — and intimidatingly so, since audience participation is a crucial element in Secret. Of course, many are uncomfortable by this and there was a scattering of ticket-buyers who did not return to their seats after the intermission. Perhaps they were simply not on Brown’s wavelength. Or more likely, they were. Brown’s also a hypnotist and at the end of the first act he warned a portion of the audience—those who were committing infidelity, for instance — that they could be in peril of having their secrets exposed if they stayed. You’re participating even if you don’t think you are. “Someone in the audience is tapping their foot,” Brown called out in the middle of one stunt. “Please stop.”

In between the 10 or so elaborate tricks that he performs, Brown also talks about himself. Early on, while musing about secrets, he explains that he discovered he was gay at age 15 but didn’t come out until he was 31. And he knows now that all the anxiety he felt about his friends’ and family’s reaction was wasted energy. “We would care less of what people thought about us,” he says, “if we realized that they didn’t.” It’s a poignant observation — and for Brown, crucially, engenders from the audience a much-needed ingredient: trust.

It wasn’t the only time he waxed philosophical. Building up to a smoke-and-mirrors stunt involving a padlocked box that once belonged to his now-deceased grandfather, Brown remarked, “If my grandfather hadn’t died, then I wouldn’t be here doing this right now. And you wouldn’t be here doing this right now.” (The show’s thoughtful, nimble script was written by Brown along with Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, both of whom are also credited as its directors.)

What’s most fascinating about Brown is his own anti-magician position when it comes to the supernatural. “I don’t believe I have psychic abilities,” he says with emphasis. “But I sometimes get on a roll with this.” Three mentalists who practiced in the 1930s, he claims, experienced such delusions of grandeur that they were institutionalized. One committed suicide. Brown is also acutely aware that his gifts of seduction and sleight of hand are used by con men for much less entertainment-related activities.

But even though Brown has spoken openly about those sleazy charlatans (like in this long interview with Richard Dawkins), Secret is not a hectoring lecture on atheism or skepticism. He aims to prove the allure of chicanery by exhilarating the audience with its power. “The reason why I love doing this,” he says, “is because it reminds me to be alive.” That’s an ear worm that you’ll feel in your head for days after seeing Brown’s thrilling spectacle. Especially for the die-hard doubters in the crowd, Secret is real magic. A