Marc Salem's Mind Games Captures Public Imagination

Marc Salem's Mind Games Captures Public Imagination As the lyric in the John Lennon song goes, "We keep on playing those Mind Games together..." so has Marc Salem's Off-Broadway show, Mind Games, settled in for its open run of teasing and baffling audiences at the Westside Theatre.

As the lyric in the John Lennon song goes, "We keep on playing those Mind Games together..." so has Marc Salem's Off-Broadway show, Mind Games, settled in for its open run of teasing and baffling audiences at the Westside Theatre.

The show began previews Oct. 24 and opened Nov. 17. Produced by David Richenthal, Anita Waxman and Jeffrey Ash, the performance is neither a traditional magic show nor a hypnotism act, yet seems to have elements of both. Former production spokesperson Mark Cannistraro, at Jeffrey Richards Associates, termed it, "a cross between Penn & Teller and Ricky Jay." (Jay himself returns to Off-Broadway with his 52 Assistants, Jan. 14.) So taken was recent visitor Rosie O'Donnell with the show, Salem has been tapped to appear on her morning television program, Jan. 14.

Spokesperson Philip Bond (also at Richards) said (Oct. 20), "Salem is the world's foremost mentalist. He plays lots of psychological games with the audience and plays with the world of the sixth sense. It's very magical and psychological."

Playbill On-Line asked Salem (Jan. 8) whether the appearance of a trio of entertainments -- Joseph Gabriel's Magic, Ricky Jay and Mind Games -- pointed to a sudden upsurge in the appeal of other worldly phenomena. Explained Salem, "Mystery entertainment has always captured America's attention, particularly mentalism and magic to some extent. But can we gauge when this reaches a peak of popularity? I don't know. They say that in bad times, people want to escape into fantasy. But there are good times when this kind of entertainment also flourishes. I think it's much more personality-based. When you have a Doug Henning or a David Copperfield or a Joseph Dunninger or a Ricky Jay...their personalities are more part of it than anything they particularly do."

"My show is like a jazz riff," said Salem. "There are basic modular elements, depending on the audience, but I'll do variations on a particular tune. They're the same tricks an advertiser might use. This is a different kind of venue for me, which is both easier and more difficult. It's easier cause I know where I'm going to be every time; it's tougher because a new environment tends to keeps you fresh. Now I need the audience to make me feel fresh." And remember: Marc Salem may be friendly, but with all due respect to Dionne Warwick, he's NOT a psychic friend. "I'm not a psychic -- I disavow that that term constantly. I am a psychologist, capable as much as anybody -- given practice -- of picking up what people are thinking."

Continued Salem, "My life has taken several tongs of the same fork; my work has always involved the mind and how it works. As a kid I was fascinated by the mind and by entertainment and what motivates and moves people, which is also an aspect of theatre. Also, I could make people laugh and hold their attention. We live in a strange continuum where education, entertainment and politics all fall under the same purview of trying to capture the people's attention. Salem pointed to University of Pennsylvania professor Ray Birdwhistle, founder of kinesics back in the 1950s, as a mentor. "He'd film people and study their body language from one frame to another, 27 times a second," marveled Salem. "He was my professor and opened up an entire field. Up to 80 percent of what we say to people is through movement. My wife and I watch Japanese TV, and in five minutes we know what's going on, even though we don't understand Japanese."

"Eli Wallach came to the show with his wife, Anne Jackson," continued Salem. "And they said `Evert actor should see Mind Games.' I was wondering what he meant by that, but then I realized from seeing him in Visiting Mr. Green that he's an actor who, with the raise of an eyebrow, conveys hundreds of pages of script. But most of us don't learn this, we don't learn how to pick up most of the information conveyed to us."

A teacher and researcher for public television's "Sesame Street," Salem was never too far away from live performance. "I had a cabaret program I did back in graduate school, and did soirees while I was teaching at Marymount Manhattan College [where he still lectures]. My set designer, Ray Recht, is on the faculty there."

Salem admits he and Recht don't always see eye-to-eye on the show's design, notably the partially mirrored set, which has set tongues wagging that they allow the performer to peek and cheat. "Certain things have to be experimented with as far as a look," said Salem. "The current set accentuates the program, but sometimes I would love the set just to be me. But theatre's a collaborative effort, with designers and producers. In another month or two, many things in the program might change, but those are superficial changes ultimately. A little bit here and there. For example, I don't particularly like dressing in black..it's just not me. So I've just started to wear a white shirt. I'm much happier with it. It's a simple, cosmetic change, but important, because many people think of the mentalist as a spooky, scowling supermind. I'd rather come across as a smiling teddybear. We're in the 1990s, not the time of Joseph Dunninger. I don't have to stare out with a piercing look, which is a cliche. Let's just have fun."

Tickets to Mind Games are now onsale at the Westside box office or via TeleCharge at (212) 239-6200. But you already knew that...right?

-- By David Lefkowitz