Mind Games: Marc Salem on Broadway
From the moment he steps onstage, Marc Salem appears to be about the most unprepossessing performer imaginable. He looks like someone you may pass on the street, or perhaps see teaching a college class; he's bald, has a beard, and wears a simple black suit. His behavior also supports the illusion of normality: A dry sense of humor, a monotonous voice, a laid-back attitude. This man is a star?
It's not long after Mind Games has begun that you realize his one-man show is every bit as much of an act as the one that goes on at the same theater (the Lyceum) the other six days of the week in I Am My Own Wife. Okay, Salem doesn't play three dozen different characters the way Jefferson Mays does, but he's ultimately no less convincing at making you believe he's someone else entirely. He just goes about it in a different, more subversive way.
Specifically, by using every trick in his considerable arsenal to convince you he's not doing anything special. There's no magic involved, he assures us, nothing occult; he's just doing what any ten-year-old (albeit one with 30 years experience) could do. His sincerity and light manner give you no reason to doubt a word he's saying, even when he's performing astounding feats that seem to tap directly into the minds of the audience. No number you may be thinking of - or a pleasant vacation you might remember - is fair game.
He's careful to explain at the beginning of the evening, though, that he's not there to pry, and he doesn't want to embarrass anyone. He's interested in demonstrating the capability of the senses, and being in tune with the unspoken signals everyone emits every moment of every day. Salem, who holds advanced degrees from two universities, is considered a world-class authority on non-verbal communication, and one trip to Mind Games is certainly enough to convince you. Luckily, he's also insistent that everyone have a good time, and at this show, a good time is almost impossible to resist.
To describe what he does in excessive detail would be to give away much of the surprise on which Salem thrives. His games involve tricks with numbers, including the speed-limit-pushing arithmetical processing of numbers given him by audience members; a small-scale game show featuring envelopes with mysterious contents, and an eerily appropriate consolation prize for the lucky player; a Pictionary-style challenge in which he guesses the contents of pictures drawn by five audience members; the seeding of a spy story with suggestions from the audience and a sealed envelope in his jacket pocket; and the evening's climax, in which - while heavily blindfolded - he reveals exquisite detail of a variety of objects from the audience.
That last demonstration also points up Salem's gifts as a performer, as he hits his audience-chosen assistants - a doctor and a nurse - with a fierce volley of good-natured medical jokes, while succeeding at identifying properties of the objects of which their bearers were not even aware. Salem, while perhaps not a natural stage performer, can captivate an audience much as an actor might in a monologue or a song. He's greatly aided by a natural inclination toward comedy that suits him well whether he's convincing the audience he's nothing special. (Perhaps his greatest "trick" of the evening or gently ribbing a late-coming theatregoer.)
All of this is not to say that this is a particularly theatrical venture. You won't find the same kind of flamboyant antics from Salem that you might from Ricky Jay, and he doesn't rely on colorful, glitzy spectacle that are as much a part of David Copperfield's shows as Copperfield himself. No, it's just Salem, with a table full of props, and the simple set Derek McLane designed for I Am My Own Wife. Salem's out there by himself, with only his powers of observation and deceptive attitude and appearance to carry the evening. And carry it he does.
Salem sustains one running joke throughout the evening: Every time he completes a notably astonishing trick, he waves it off and tells the audience, "Just warming up, just warming up." And while he seems pretty warm at the beginning of the evening, yes, he's even hotter by the end. By that point, he's convinced you that there's almost nothing he can't do.
Well, there is one thing: make the evening go on forever. Even Salem must eventually capitulate to the demands of time. But while you're with him, his Mind Games are of the most wildly enjoyable sort.