Like devotees of the 1985 Madonna classic “Desperately Seeking Susan,” magician Jon Tai understands the narrative allure of “missed connections” — those personal ads where people try to reconnect after brief, tantalizing encounters with strangers. He’s collected his favorites over the years, cliffhangers with captions like “The Blonde Bird Lover,” “Hot sexy hobbit at bridge of Khazad-dur” and “Was that your limb?” They provide the framework for his 60-minute magic show.
Co-produced and created with fellow Cornell alum Alex Gruhin, the A Red Orchid production streaming from Tai’s home in Pittsburgh weaves together the romance of missed connections, musings on the multiverse and mind-boggling illusions. “Missed Connections” is beguiling, partly because of the content — Tai does things I’ve never seen in 25+ years of magic shows — and partly because he wears charm like an exquisitely understated bespoke suit. The usual magic suspects — playing cards, disappearing coins, sealed envelopes — figure prominently. But he also makes remarkable use of 21st century tech in the service of up-close magic. As card decks and coins were to the great Ricky Jay, so are smartphones and audio email to Jon Tai.
“You can roll your eyes and say, ‘This is dumb, go get a real job,’ ” he says toward the top of the show. “Or you can choose to take a leap.” Shortly thereafter he offhandedly turns a tumbler of water into something entirely different, making the decision easy.
“Missed Connections” has a maximum audience of 25. It’s a live Zoom show, and the reason for the tiny audience becomes clear immediately. Tai is intent on drawing everyone of the 25 into conversation, if not in his convivial preshow chitter-chatter than as volunteers during the show. We’re all more or less gathered in his somewhat macabre (there’s a life-sized papier-mâché stag head mounted on the wall) but well-appointed (there’s also a gorgeous loom) Pittsburgh living room.
The tricks vary in quality, eliciting reactions ranging from a polite oh-my-goodness (the thing with the water) to an amazed surely-that-did-not-just-happen (the stuff with the cellphones). He starts small, spinning a rom-commy tale of OKCupid and a Halloween party involving a woman bearing a Samurai sword. The first part of the tale culminates in a paper rose spontaneously igniting (or so it seems) into a fireball the size of a grapefruit. When the explosion erupts from the edge of his fingertips, Tai exhibits a sort of James Bond aloofness, barely even glancing over at the flames. And then he spins the story out from that long-ago Halloween party and into the lives of the audience.
Tai emails his collection of “missed connections” to everyone in the audience. Some of them are pure comedy (“Did you lose a ham?”) and some of them are inarguably profound. Tai quotes from a latter example, posted by a woman sorry she didn’t make a move on the produce guy at Trader Joe’s: “Just me, my regret, and my immaculate kale.” It’s worthy of Camus. So it goes in “Missed Connections,” as magic and philosophy merge in discussions of romance, the multiverse and traveling down roads not taken. The finale involves a voicemail and a phone call to a seemingly randomly generated number on your calculator. Both are simply astonishing.
Tai begins the show with a question we’ve all asked ourselves: How might your life have unfolded had you chosen Door A instead of Door B? Whether the doors represent a job opportunity or the person you left a party with, it’s a universal query. Punctuated with magic, it opens the door to marvels.
Catey Sullivan is a Chicago freelance writer.