Like any good con man, Derren Brown is a charmer. To be fair, of course, he’s not really a con man — the famed British mentalist, who’s making his Broadway debut in the new show “Derren Brown: Secret,” is merely an expert mind-reader, which is not so much hocus-pocus as it is being well-versed in psychology and human behavior. Simply put — he can read all the subtle ticks and tells we hapless humans exhibit when we’re nervous, or thinking in a certain way, and he uses that talent — luckily for us — to entertain.
The show, a mix of humor and head-scratching HOW’D-HE-DO-THAT — with a dash of creepiness, and even some lessons on how to live a happier life — earned raves Off-Broadway in 2017, and now opens at the Cort Theatre on Sept. 15 (running through Jan. 4). With his impish grin and rapid-fire delivery, Brown serves up a mix of mind-control, suggestion and, yes, deception. And that only adds to the fun of trying to figure out how he figures out what people are thinking.
Brown, 48, a London native and two-time Olivier Award winner, trained as a magician, then went on to host a series of British TV specials (now on Netflix) where he’s predicted the National Lottery, convinced viewers they were stuck to their sofas, played Russian roulette and debunked so-called “faith healers” by revealing their tricks. He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio at a Manhattan apartment where he’s staying for the run of his show.
I must confess, when I went to your press preview, I was a skeptic. I left a believer.
The whole time I watched you, I was trying to figure out what cues you were reading in people.
It’s like doing a magic show, but instead of decks of cards, my tool kit is the minds of audience members. Which is great as a performer — I can’t sit back and repeat the same show each night.
Is there an aspect of human nature that still surprises you?
There’s one thing I always find delightful. I invite people onstage, and that’s an odd place for people to be. It makes them nervous. And even if you’re in an audience of 2,000 people you all feel for that person. It’s this empathic, really nice response. For me, that was a real lesson — if you’re nervous, just be nervous. We see people showing vulnerability as a strength. To the person onstage, it feels like weakness — but to everybody watching it looks like a great act of courage. It’s a deeply human thing — which magic traditionally ISN’T. Magic is usually about “Look at me, aren’t I clever?”
Given your unique, er, skills, have you been tempted to work your magic on unsuspecting people in public?
In real life, I’m kind of the opposite — I make no effort to control things. I‘m not trying to, say, get upgrades. Although I am banned from most, if not all, casinos in the U.K. I was studying gambling tricks like card counting — it’s a fairly standard thing. They threw me out of one casino …
… and so other casinos don’t let me in either.
So … is it possible to beat the roulette wheel?
The answer is yes, you can, but over a very long period of time. It requires a huge amount of betting. The returns are guaranteed but they’re so small it just isn’t worth doing.
Do you enjoy debunking faith healers and other cons?
I do, but with this show, “Secret,” I want to make a deeper point.
Which is …
Magic … is kind of a childish craft — trying to impress people through trickery. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve tried to make my shows about more than that. I’m not really a magician. Part of my background is magic, part is hypnosis, part is persuasion — it’s a lot of things. I realized magic is a great analogy to how we sort out information in the world — how we live. We have this infinite data coming at us — in order to make sense of any of it, we have to create stories.
If you think of the image of storytelling, it’s ‘round a campfire, or fireplace, some cozy space in an otherwise cold and scary world. This show reminds us that we only ever get one bit of the story — whether we’re in our own social media bubbles, or we just grow up hearing a story without ever questioning it. That’s difficult to avoid. But at least we can become conscious of it. If a magician can tell you anything, it’s that there’s always other stuff going on that the average person is unaware of. And that is such an important lesson to learn, now more than ever.