Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent.
The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other tricks of the trade on his gleefully willing, how’d-he-do-it subjects. Previously at the Atlantic Theater Company two years ago, Brown now expands his show to a Broadway-sized house without losing the sense of intimate wonder. In some ways, it makes his feats of bamboozlement all the more impressive as he sends Frisbees out into the audience to find far-flung volunteers.
A larger theater here — and potentially on tour — simply means there’s more marks happily willing to join this community of fools. That shared sense of surprise is just part of the fun of the show; the other part is its down-to-earth thesis that offers a glimmer of false hope that the ruse can fail.
“We are all trapped within our own heads,” says Brown at the start of the show, and for the next two and a half hours he proves his point by outmaneuvering his subjects with his powers of persuasion, deduction, misdirection, sleight-of-hand, switcheroos and an extraordinary understanding of human behavior.
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All of which he freely admits, even poo-pooing the idea of psychics, mentalists and magic. He calls his art “psychological illusionism,” and if you want to intellectualize it, it’s also metaphorically rich. It’s important to know what’s real and what’s easily faked in these times, he says pointedly. The truth is far more complex, he suggests, than the manipulated fakery that scoundrels practice.
It’s a simple yet still visually appealing show with a seemingly stripped-down stage, set in a blue-black void (scenic elements by Takeshi Kata) and dreamily illuminated by Ben Stanton. There’s no Vegas glitz here even if there may be the urge to head to a casino after the show. (Old habits die hard.)
In light of urging critics and others not to reveal the nature of his set pieces, it’s fair to say he starts the show with modest demonstrations using his powers of observation — not to mention statistical analysis — with the classic which-hand-has-the-object test. He then ups the ante with subsequent demonstrations that are grander in scale.
But it’s the man as well as the marvels that make the show so appealing. Brown quickly wins over the audience with casual chat and dry humor that continually points out matter-of-factly that the tricks are made possible by the easily distracted mind, ripe for a ruse, a con or a sting.
He peppers the audience-participation with clever improv, culled no doubt from years of stage and television shows in the U.K., where he’s widely known. “Hmmm, this person is somewhat of an adventuresome speller,” he says, reading a card submitted by an audience member.
He also personalizes the patter by talking about coming out as a gay man at 31, the first of many revelations of the show, which build gradually in surprise until the final secret is shown. It’s a jaw-dropping, multi-layered reveal with a kicker of a coda. If minds aren’t totally blown, they’re at least scrambled for a while. Even cynical New Yorkers will be at least momentarily stunned.