Marc Salem doesn't produce rabbits from a top hat, but with coins, several layers of tape and a black cloth tightly secured over his eyes -- and without touching a hand to anything -- he identifies such objects contributed from the audience as a small square of matzoh, an investigator's badge (complete with badge number), a pair of spectacles weaker on the left lens than the right, and a Canadian five-dollar bill (complete with serial number).
For 90 stimulating minutes at the Westside Theatre, he also plays astonishing MindGames (the name of the show) with arithmetic, names, places, ideas, magic markers, drawings, colors, sealed envelopes, wallets, tape cassettes, cellular phones and a sizable quantity of private choices and personal data known only, as far as can be surmised, to the people out there in the seats each night -- until, God knows how, he cordially and dramatically comes up with it, out with it, all that information, time and time again.
No smoke, no mirrors. "I don't use stooges, confederates, plants," Salem firmly declares. "There are no people in the audience whom I know; no special transmitters, no receivers in my hair" -- which, you may be sure, gets a laugh, because Marc Salem, though bearded and sideburned and pigtailed like Mephistopheles, is as bald on top as a cue ball.
He looks, in fact, in his gray-on-gray ensemble, like nothing so much as an energetic rabbi, and in yet more exact fact he's No. 2 of the three sons of rabbi Israel Salem of Philadelphia -- the city in which our mind reader (who will tell you he doesn't read minds, just watches for signals) was born on April 24, 1953. After Israel Salem's death at 41, Dorothy Shestack Salem, the rabbi's wife -- "a full-time job in itself" -- kept things together as a pharmacist.
A graduate of Brooklyn College ('74), of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication ('76), and of NYU (Ph.D. '81), Marc Salem for ten years did research for the Children's Television Workshop (i.e., "Sesame Street") on how children's minds work. For the past 15 years he's been a Professor of Communications Research at Marymount Manhattan College, doing extracurricular MindGames gigs at cabarets, corporate events, and what he calls "soirees," meaning parties. At one such soiree he was asked by producer Anita Waxman (who co-produces this show with David Richenthal and Jeffrey Ash) if he'd like to tackle an Off-Broadway booking, a proposal that blew his mind.
"I love theatricality, I love the mind, I love teaching," Salem says. "I think of the classroom as a theatre, theatre as a classroom. To me, I am a teacher and an entertainer who accentuates the abilities of the mind. There's nothing supernatural in all this. I work with probabilities, watching as a writer would for words and motions, for clues, guiding certain thoughts.
"If there's a sixth sense beyond that I think it's my sense of humor." Indeed, his patter is one of the strong points of the show. And he is having a ball at the Westside. "Each night I walk out and say to myself: 'I wonder what they have for me tonight?' This is a show with a cast of 250. It's not a one-man show."
Yeah, yeah. But let any of those 250 get up there, triple-blindfolded, and do what Marc Salem can do.
-- By Jerry Tallmer