If Marc Salem were reading this review, he wouldn’t have to. He would know what it says without bothering to peruse it, because he supposedly can read thoughts. At least that’s his fancy reputation, although it’s not precisely the case. He will tell you — and does tell you a few times during Marc Salem’s Mind Games on Broadway — that he’s not reading thoughts but that he’s reading body language. After all, he’s a student and teacher of developmental psychology.
In his 90-minute, Monday-nights-only display of acumen, Salem is using what he knows to tune keenly into non-verbal communication, which he believes conveys more about what people think than what they say does. If he were reading this review and I said I didn’t like his performance when I actually do, he might have to believe me because he couldn’t see the give-away blinking of an eye, the nod of the head, or the shuffle from one foot to the other that might indicate I’m lying. He wouldn’t have those “tells” at his disposal. So I’ll have to repeat outright that I admire his talent or whatever it is he calls it.
Hitting the stage — he performs in front of the I Am My Own Wife set on the production’s dark night — Salem assures the audience he has nothing up the sleeves of his somber three-piece suit and matching somber tie. (He also has no director, lighting designer, or sound designer.) There are no confederates whispering into an earpiece, no mirrors, no tricks. Salem has simply honed skills that others could sharpen if they set their, uh, minds to it.
His having mastered an esoteric technique is something he expects the audience to take on faith, and which the audience apparently does. Perhaps part of his success is also due to the audience’s wanting to be fooled, wanting to believe in the magic of his insights. At the same time, I suspect the audience is waiting for him to make a mistake, to miss one of his accurate “guesses.” I know I was happy to suspend disbelief and at the same time longed for him to stumble, if only to prove that although his powers of observation are advanced, he’s still fallible.
So my sense is that much of the audience was gratified when he erred in insisting to one of five audience participants that she had drawn a figure on one of five pads he’d passed out that she actually hadn’t drawn. He’d asked the five to sketch a figure, hand the pads to one participant for shuffling and then attempted to match the drawing to the drawer. My conclusion about the general glee arises from my own gratification at his misstep and also from the victorious participant’s. Joy was so joyful she did a jubilant dance for about 30 seconds, which Salem was gentleman enough to let go by without comment.
But if Joy No-Last-Name-Given had the opportunity to fool the master at his specialty, she was the only one. Using too many audience members as shills to be accused of having audience plants at the ready, he asked for random numbers, letters, times of day and when he’d collected the data pulled the exact numbers and so on from envelopes he placed in leather cases before the show. Or at one point he had arbitrary numbers added and then had an audiocassette rolled that played the identical sum he’s recorded earlier in the day. He had a woman imagine a vase with flowers in it, then imagine the vase being shattered. He asked the woman to speculate how much the vase she’d dreamed up was worth. She said $180, and he revealed a board prepared previously on which $180 was written.
How does he do it?, the audience repeatedly has to be thinking — as it doesn’t take Salem to ascertain. The explanation he gives about body language, et cetera, only goes so far. It can’t begin to cover his astonishing ability — when he has himself blindfolded and taped — to identify objects collected from the audience and held behind his back and under one extended hand. “You overpaid for this,” he tells a woman who has sent her John Kerry campaign button to the stage. Okay, once he’s asked if the pin was in exchange for a donation and once he’s established the woman is a Democrat, the leap to John Kerry campaign button is simple enough. But how on earth did he come up with the concept of overpaying that led to his declaring what the object he couldn’t see was? Or is there some way he really does see the button? If so, it’s not discernible.
These sorts of small triumphs make Salem’s act astounding; so do things like handing a woman three colored envelopes, two of which contain promises of a cash reward and a third that promises who-knows-what. He tells the woman that even though she has a two-out-of-three chance to win money, she won’t. She will unfailingly choose the wrong envelope. Of course, he’s right; she picks unluckily. Perhaps the authoritative Salem has also mastered some body language of his own, movements or gestures or facial cues that prompt people to do what he wants them to do. He doesn’t discuss the possibility. But even if he had owned up to the ruse, who would know what his signals were? He wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary.
Salem — whose website will inform you he has a couple of advanced degrees in his field — has been playing mind games successfully for some years now and knows how to work a crowd every bit as easily as he knows how to read it. There are stock lines for occasions like these, and he’s got a million of them. A man says his name is Rob, Salem says, “If you were a thief, that would be a real good name.” He’s also quick on the endearing ad lib. It’s an invaluable asset for a man who needs the audience to hand over their trust so readily.
All that said, it can also be noted that what Salem is doing is a part of a great tradition. It isn’t a theater tradition, however. It’s a vaudeville tradition, a music hall staple. His mind games are in the category of acts that used to get 20 minutes on the Orpheum and Keith circuits. Ninety minutes of such gaming begins to try an observer’s attention. While learning the ins and outs of how Salem does what he does might be fascinating for hours, watching him just demonstrate his prowess has its limit.
There is something of the parlor trick about his presentation, no matter how much he might go on about there being no gimmicks involved. That might explain why, after putting wide-eyed and delighted expressions on a few hundred faces, he walks off to only scattered applause. That he’s perhaps stayed on too long is something Salem hasn’t yet read on patrons’ minds.