Review: Stalker Is a Magic Show About Big Data and the Power of Persuasion

Peter Brynolf and Jonas Ljung perform their cerebral magic show off-Broadway.

Peter Brynolf and Jonas Ljung star in Stalker, directed by Edward Af Sillén, at New World Stages.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Magicians already have enough of a reputation that it seems foolhardy (or perhaps punk rock) to call a magic show Stalker — but that’s exactly what Peter Brynolf and Jonas Ljung have done. The magical Swedish duo is now performing at New World Stages, where packed audiences delight in acts that gleefully tiptoe along the border between astounding and creepy.

The first act, in which Brynolf and Ljung pair up two singles from the audience using a process of elimination, perfectly sets the tone. This is an event that requires audience participation, and your milage may vary depending on your willingness to engage.

Should you be selected, the boyishly handsome Ljung will peer deep into your eyes, seemingly reading your thoughts. Even the most skeptical in the audience will be at a loss to explain how he knows what he knows.

Brynolf is the more talented of the two when it comes to sleight of hand, performing impressive close-up magic tricks with playing cards. At one point, he makes an iPhone vanish before our eyes.

The performers share a dark, particularly Swedish sense of humor, the very quality that made this year’s Eurovision Song Contest such a delight. It helps to lubricate the acts and makes this show funny in addition to being merely amazing.

They’ve clearly chosen to embrace the Euro-cheesiness of it all, with lighting (by Jamie Roderick) and sound (by Drew Levy) that wouldn’t be out of place on a televised talent contest produced by one of the continent’s smaller national broadcasters.

Peter Brynolf and Jonas Ljung star in Stalker, directed by Edward Af Sillén, at New World Stages.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

As directed by Edward af Sillén (who co-conceived the show), Stalker occasionally veers into the incomprehensible as our two performers task us with some activity (I had to fill out a card listing my favorite color and celebrity) while expounding on the big ideas and stories undergirding their tricks. It’s easy to lose sight of the ball in their drawn-out wind-ups, although one suspects this is all a deliberate tactic to disorient us, overwhelming us with input so we don’t notice the deception right in front of our faces.

And it is a marvelous kind of deception — a late act with a cake is particularly jaw-dropping. We don’t know how they did it, although one suspects it has something to do with big data and our own propensity to tell on ourselves.

Brynolf and Ljung’s thesis is a familiar one: Every day we willingly betray information about ourselves, and that is being used by all sorts of actors to subtly influence our behavior. By being so predictable, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to manipulation. Anyone who scrolls past an Instagram advertisement about something they were just discussing a minute ago knows this to be true. Brynolf and Ljung are just illustrating the obvious with great style.

What they never offer is any insight on how to evade the Matrix — a digital escape act to rival Houdini. Perhaps this is impossible in 2024, as AI marches forward and the well of data grows ever deeper. The house always wins. But I found myself by the end rooting for some clever audience member to overcome expectations and surprise everyone by taking the path that wasn’t determined for them by our very persuasive hosts. That would be real magic.

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Final performance: September 1, 2024