A Vintage Magic Show? Mentalist Tests Same Old Miracles

My interest in Marc Salem’s Mind Games on Broadway should come as no surprise to those who know me. I’ve been intrigued by mind-reading and its allied arts since I was a child and knew no better.

For example, I share something in common with Orson Welles and Muhammad Ali. I’m a sucker for magic tricks (though “trick” is too lowly a word for the truly astonishing). Quite recently, a magician asked me to sign a playing card, which subsequently reappeared in an orange . Well, that was no trick.

I know a few myself, actually. I can make a red scarf turn into a white scarf if I want. And I can make a white scarf turn into a red scarf. (Polka dots are harder.) I can also tear a newspaper into squares and have it appear whole again. And I can make certain things disappear-though not, alas, certain people.

On balance, I tend to believe in irrational things, like going to the theater. I’m superstitious: I once visited a renowned shaman in Nigeria who threw down cowrie shells in a show of divination and silenced my unspoken cynicism by pointing fiercely to his eyes. “My eyes do not see tomorrow,” he announced with shaming force. “But what they see will happen …. “

He prophesied that I would be extremely wealthy and held above all others in my work. But, unfortunately, only one came true. Still, I believe in the existence of gypsy instinct, extraordinary acts of clairvoyancy, synchronicity (or staggering coincidence) and thought transference. I was once lucky enough to meet Graham Greene, and the great novelist-who had such a mighty struggle all his life in believing in God-told me he had no difficulty whatsoever in accepting the paranormal.

“It seems to me reasonable that great distress can travel,” he said, staring at me earnestly with his depressed, ginny eyes. “If a voice can come through on the radio, why not a voice or emotion hundreds of miles away through the air?”

Why not? After all, animals are known to read the thoughts of human beings. And if they can do it, why not Marc Salem on Broadway? Mr. Salem hears voices, too, in his own matter-of-fact way. “Andrea,” he asks a member of his audience. “Who’s Celia?”

“My dog,” the amazed Andrea replies.

“Did you and Douglas take a wedding trip to Stockholm?”

“Oh, my God!” they cry.

The bearded Mr. Salem, short and stocky in a formal business suit, looks unimpressed at his own gifts, however. He’s a deliberately unshowy mind reader. For myself, if you’re going to produce, say, lots of pigeons from thin air, you need a little atmosphere, you need white tie and tails and a touch of mystery. But Mr. Salem in his business suit consciously banishes the mysterious from his act-as if telling us that what he does is actually real and reasonable, if you know how.

When he first appeared onstage, he stopped the welcoming applause with, “It’s only me!” In other untheatrical words, he wants us to believe he’s a normal human being-not a showbiz shaman or trickster. When he announces where we took a vacation, for example, he’s just telling us what he knows.

“Alison, you went to Maui. George-was it Peru? Helen-you went up a mountain recently.”

“Yes!” Helen exclaims, as the others did.

“You jumped off the mountain, didn’t you?” Mr. Salem adds confidently.

The audience laughs. But Helen doesn’t.

“Were you in a hand-glider?” he asks.

“I was!” Helen cries.

“She’s not stupid,” he says to us.

The first mind reader I saw in childhood blindfolded himself and called out the serial number on a bank note that a member of the audience had in his wallet. The blindfold wasn’t essential. Either he knew the serial number or he didn’t. (And either the member of the audience was a plant or he wasn’t.) Obviously, the mind reader was blindfolding himself for extra dramatic effect.

Mr. Salem does something similar at the Lyceum Theatre, where he appears every Monday when I Am My Own Wife is dark. In fact, Mr. Salem-a no frills mind reader-is appearing on the set of I Am My Own Wife , and its flimsy, ghostly presence reminds us that all theater is a fantastic illusion. (Or a nice lie in an artistic cause.) But are Mr. Salem’s gifts the real thing, as he would have us believe?

At one high point in his show, he places half-dollar coins over each eye. Then he wraps a lot of surgical tape round his head. And for extra dramatic effect, he blindfolds himself. He then names various objects-a key ring, a campaign button, a baseball cap, a safety pin-collected at random from members of the audience and handed to another audience member onstage. That’s not all: He tells us the slogan on the campaign button and the number 129 on the back of the safety pin. How does he do it?

My suspicion that all isn’t quite as it seems goes back to the time, a few years ago, when I revisited Blackpool, mecca holiday resort in the North of England. I went there often in childhood and returned for a nostalgic visit. On the prom-or a boardwalk-was the booth of a mind reader named Gypsy Rose, and I was thinking of going in when Gypsy Rose herself appeared unexpectedly from within.

“What are you doing nosing around?” she asked accusingly.

I said I was just taking a look.

“Well, come in or fuck off out of it,” said Gypsy Rose.

I didn’t go in, but here’s the thing: Since she was the mind reader, shouldn’t she have known what I was doing there in the first place?

It seems to me that mind readers are limited to quite minor information. Mr. Salem can guess what number you’ve written down. He has a phenomenal mathematical memory (as the lugubrious Ricky Jay does). He can read body language. He can tell if you’re lying. He can magically duplicate the drawing you’ve just made. He can tell you the serial number on your $20 bill. He can even stop your pulse and stop your watch.

But what he can’t do is tell you something as simple as your name or job. When he invites volunteers onstage-”Join us onstage, please!”-he has to ask you to identify yourself. Mr. Salem is no different from irritable old Gypsy Rose of Blackpool in that respect. But he pulls of some pretty remarkable feats. How does he do it? That’s the question.

I haven’t a clue.

Unless, that is, the audience members eagerly volunteering to join him onstage are Mr. Salem’s shills. Either that, or Mr. Salem has a listening device implanted in an ear lobe. It’s only a guess, but the secret listening device could be connected to an assistant in the balcony. The assistant, for example, could whisper to him what all the objects are when he’s blindfolded with the half-dollars in his eyes and the surgical tape.

Then how does he know that the number 129 is on the back of the safety pin? The audience member who had the safety pin is a shill.

Aha! But not so fast. Mr. Salem has posted a $100,000 reward if anyone can prove he uses a plant, or a mirror, or tricks of any kind.

I thought of going back a second time and even a third time to claim the reward-but to be honest, I couldn’t face it. Mr. Salem is a direct link with the lost golden age of variety, but at an hour and a half in length, there’s only so many times I can see him guessing someone’s cell-phone number.

It’s uncharitable, I know. But Mr. Salem, excellent in so many ways, never makes a mistake. Even the miraculous high-wire artist without a safety net reminds us of the extreme danger he’s in by wobbling deliberately. But Mr. Salem never falters. Everything goes according to plan, it seems. But for me, the real magic of theater is always unpredictable.

Real theatrical magic happens when you see the wires. The redeeming angel crashes through the roof, but we see its wires. It’s better that way, and more fun. With theater, we willingly suspend our disbelief. With mind readers, we’re always wary, always on our guard-suspiciously wanting to know the secret.