Magician Jon Tai is obsessed with the road not taken.
His musings on the choices we make and don't make, the myriad possibilities of multiple parallel universes, and the mysterious workings of the cosmos form the philosophical backbone of “Missed Connections,” the interactive, virtual magic show co-written and produced by Alex Gruhin, his fellow Cornell University alum.
Inspired, a press release tells us, by the work of Haruki Murakami, Marshall McLuhan and Derren Brown, the hour-long evening is a deceptively laid-back exercise in storytelling punctuated by stunning examples of close-up magic. A few involve cards, numbers, sealed envelopes and even Scrabble tiles, but Tai's most distinctive tools are the products of technology.
Early on he emails us a list of 64 favorite entries he's collected from Craigslist's missed connections column, and several of these — chosen by us — are incorporated into his tale. We're also asked to use our cell phone calculators to add up seemingly random numbers that are fundamental to the amazing finale linking an audience member selected by a coin flip with an apparent total stranger.
But going back to the beginning, even before the performance starts, Tai invites us — 25 audience members tops, about a dozen the evening I attended — into his Pittsburgh living room or study, where he has a table set up in front of a wall of various items including a plaster stag's head he refers to. To take part, we're required to have a desktop or laptop computer, preferably with a wired ethernet connection; a working webcam and microphone; and version 5.2.2 or later of Zoom Desktop Client.
While the details undoubtedly vary with the audience, the romantic missed connection that gets his narrative underway concerns a long-ago Halloween party and a woman he connected with on a dating site, who turned out to be someone a friend wanted to introduce him to. He postulates meeting this woman in parallel universes and Halloween costumes (among them one with a samurai sword), and though these bear little fruit, he concludes that the cosmos meant them to be together because, we ultimately learn, she is his wife, Kate.
Typical of the way Tai relies on audience input, or seems to, is what might be called the weekend dilemma. He asks one audience member to suggest something good (as in virtuous) he could do this weekend and another to propose something evil. Then a coin toss decides which he's going to pursue. In this case, it was the evil option: kidnapping a hobo and locking him up.
What happens when he decides he's not happy with his choice....well, I've been asked not to reveal that.
Tai's style is very low-key compared to other magicians I've seen, and this can be a drawback, especially in the virtual realm where the interaction is not quite the same as it would be live. I was wowed by the tricks but wanted more of them and less shtick. Being told repeatedly how we're all connected gets tiresome after a while, whether or not it's true.
Still, not to be a curmudgeon, “Missed Connections” is a pleasant diversion, and the idea of parallel worlds is a fine sci-fi trope.
Update: This story has been revised to remove spoilers from the review.