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Theatre in Review: Stalker (New World Stages)

Peter Brynolf, Jonas Ljung. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

I am in the unhappy position of writing a review of a show about which I can tell you virtually nothing. Indeed, almost everything about Stalker is on a need-to-know basis. Here goes: Peter Brynolf and Jonas Ljung are a pair of Swedish mentalists who, following a star-making moment on Britain's Got Talent, have toured internationally. Among other things, they opened for Penn and Teller in Vegas, and the renowned team, returning the favor, is now launching them Off Broadway. The pair's stock in trade involves messing, however nicely, with audience members' minds.

Brynolf (tall, sardonic, with a topknot) and Ljung (blonde, boyish, with a deadpan sense of humor) make an affable pair of con artists; if you want to take in active part in their chicanery, you can come onstage before the show begins and get your photo taken. From this pool of volunteers, the stars assemble a corps of twenty-five marks, many of whom get drawn into the shenanigans to follow. Rest assured; no humiliation is involved. Well, not much.

After that, my lips are sealed. All right, I'll give you a hint: As an appetizer of sorts, Brynolf and Ljung pick a young man and woman from opposite sides of the audience, grilling them extensively to make clear they are strangers. Then they produce a highly personal physical souvenir marked with their names, the first of many seemingly impossible achievements. The rest of the evening consists of increasingly sophisticated variations on this theme, as they reveal one detail after another about audience members, all of which they can't possibly know -- except they do.

Indeed, the premise of Stalker is that, in the post-Google world, privacy has ceased to exist. And, ironically, so assured are Brynolf and Ljung at their form of sorcery that it comes to seem a tad predictable. To keep the audience engaged, they invent ever more labyrinthine premises, each of which they easily ace. The pièce de resistance involves an audience member who, early on, has been given a picture in a large, sealed envelope. He is asked to identify the image from a range of possibilities, a request that becomes something of a running joke. The twist here is, after the denouement, Brynolf and Ljung explain how they manipulated their subject into making his choice, then top it with a series of revelations about him, none of which they should know.

How do they do it? No idea, although I did wonder about the stage manager types, dressed in black, slinking around the auditorium murmuring into headsets. Truth to tell, I'm not the target audience for such magical feats; even if I can't see how they do it, I instinctively know the fix is in. Still, if you were taken with Derren Brown: Secret a few seasons back, you'll probably enjoy Stalker, which preys, ever so lightly, on our collective fear of a massive data breach. The piece, which is co-written and directed by Edward AF Sillén, features twinkly, colorful lighting by Jamie Roderick and crisp sound by Drew Levy. Also featured are a video design by Omanovic Production (including a sequence about Uri Geller that introduces a spoon-bending bit) and live video coverage by Urban Egelstrand. The latter, in particular, is crucial to the show's effect.

In many ways, Brynolf and Ljung's slickest achievement is their ability to make our disbelief vanish into thin air. With their assurance and cheeky wit, you can see why Penn and Teller took to them. They're likely to keep audiences happily baffled throughout the spring/summer season. --David Barbour

(2 April 2024)

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