February 12, 2001
FREE PRESS THEATER WRITER
One possibility: Marc Salem can truly read minds and see into the future.
This would explain how he will know where various strangers went on vacation and how he will foretell, in writing, the name of the person who will answer the phone when a patron places a call from the audience.
Another possibility: Before you arrive at Salem's one-man show "Mind Games" at the Century Theatre, he'll conspire with everyone else in the audience to leave you completely bamboozled, baffled and befuddled.
The first hypothesis seems unlikely: There's no such thing as mind-reading, is there? The second scenario makes no sense: It would entail an inordinate amount of work just to fool one person per show. There must be another interpretation.
"Nothing that I do is supernatural," Salem offers, helpfully, but he does claim to possess a sixth sense: "It's my sense of humor."
Salem, 47, is an academician turned entertainer, a scholar in the field of nonverbal communication who says, "Up to 80 percent of communication is not what is said."
He has helped lawyers choose jurors and has trained cops to recognize liars. He demonstrates the latter ability in a segment of "Mind Games" with volunteers from the audience.
A former research director for the TV show "Sesame Street," Salem holds a PhD in psychology from New York University and has taught at colleges in New York. "My classes were entertaining," he says, and that made him think he might appeal to a broader base of fans.
He was right. "Mind Games," one New York critic wrote, "is as brilliantly entertaining as it is tantalizingly puzzling."
Besides performing on stage, Salem has appeared on several network TV shows. After "Mind Games" concludes its Detroit run next summer, he has engagements in Edinburgh and London.
At a sneak preview last month, much of Salem's act did seem supernatural, but other parts were no less astounding. Take his introductory feat: He tosses a sheet of paper crumpled into a ball -- he calls it his "high-tech randomizer" -- over his shoulder into the audience. He asks the first person who picks it up to call out a single-digit number. "Six," is the response. Salem tosses the paper ball in a different direction. "Nine," comes the answer.
With that, he picks up a marker and a board. He thinks for a few seconds and begins to write. When he is finished, he shows the audience a 16-square grid with a number written in each square. The numbers add up to 69 horizontally, vertically, diagonally and in the four corners. The four numbers in the center also add up to 69.
There is a natural explanation for how this is done, but its effect is super.
Otherworldly, though, is the word to describe the way Salem, blindfolded, waves his hands over objects from audience members' pockets or purses and not only identifies the items but tells a little about them. The amazed owners corroborate his statements. Passing his hand over a wristwatch, for example, he remarks, "This is a gift."
It's a gift, all right. At the very least, a considerable gift for showmanship. At most, it's too scary to contemplate. For that reason, he maintains a genial, low-key presence, making jokes and keeping his audience at ease.
"I think it is so spooky," he says. "I realized I had to be laid-back." He talks to people after the show to emphasize that he's a normal guy.
But even as youngster, Salem says, he knew something was up.
"As a kid, I was sensitive to other people's thoughts. My dad was that way, too." His father, a rabbi in Philadelphia, died at 41. Salem believes that his father empathized with his congregation to a dangerous extent, "which is why I do no counseling," despite his advanced degrees in psychology.
He doesn't claim to be a seer. Can he pick the line that will move fastest at the supermarket? "Sometimes," he says.
Before the interview, a skeptical journalist had written a question on a piece of paper and placed it in his pocket. The reporter asks the academician if he knows what the question is. Salem concentrates but comes up empty: "I'm not getting anything," he says. (The question: Is that your real name? The answer: It isn't.)
But then the conversation turns to pets, and Salem inquires about the interviewer's cat. "What's his name?"
"Arlo," the interviewer says. Whereupon Salem holds up a pad of paper. One word is written on it.