Often when a show like Marc Salem's "Mind Games on Broadway" opens here, people question whether it qualifies as theater or whether it would be more properly classified as a variety act.
If you assume, as I do, that to be theater something has to radiate intelligence, Salem's one-man show qualifies far more than many conventional pieces being presented on stages all around him.
Salem is, quite simply, phenomenal.
He appears at the Lyceum Theatre on Monday nights, when its usual occupant, "I Am My Own Wife," is dark.
He uses that show's set and a few minor props. Since the house lights are on throughout, there is no "hocus-pocus."
As a stage presence, Salem is hardly prepossessing. Mostly bald, jowly and very overweight, his manner is that of a chatty motivational speaker rather than a magician.
But the theater fairly crackles with electricity as he performs his astounding mental feats.
He tells us a little about himself - he did graduate studies in nonverbal communication, which he put to use for 10 years at the Children's Television Workshop, and now serves as a consultant to police departments.
Afterward, he goes right to work.
At one point, for example, a blindfolded Salem passes his hand over objects audience members have brought onto the stage. He identifies them correctly. Later, he asks people to write down their names, as well as a place where they once vacationed, on cards -then urged them to concentrate on some emotion connected with that vacation.
Without looking at the cards, he calls out the names, the places and some remark about the emotional association.
At one point he has a doctor from the audience take his pulse, which he is able to change dramatically.
When a "normal" magician performs feats, the effect is that something mechanical has taken place. Whether it excites you has to do with the level of showmanship the magician displays.
Here, the "tricks" do not involve gadgets or gimmicks. They result purely from mental concentration, which profoundly enhances the sense of mystery and, yes, magic.
Does he use shills or "plants"? I doubt it - having that many people placed throughout the audience would cut too heavily into the gross to make it worthwhile.
Salem maintains that this is simply a manifestation of what people communicate subconsciously. However he wishes to explain it, "Mind Games" is thrilling theater.
Marc Salem is up to his old tricks.
That's good news for theatergoers, especially families in search of mind-boggling entertainment sugared with quick wit and plenty of laughter.
For those who have never made his acquaintance, Mr. Salem is the portly mental magician whose bag of tricks seems to include the ability to read minds and see with eyes buried beneath two 50-cent pieces, three strips of surgical tape and a black blindfold.
In another age he would kindle the fever of witch hunters; today he is a welcome diversion from the cares of the world as he astonishes and delights audiences in "Marc Salem's Mind Games on Broadway" on Monday nights at 8 at the Lyceum Theater (149 West 45th Street), otherwise the home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "I Am My Own Wife."
Mr. Salem can amaze a doctor from the audience by speeding up and stopping his own pulse, can identify liar after liar and can produce a tape on which his voice, previously recorded, recites a four-digit number compiled at random from the audience.
While blindfolded he can identify objects taken from the audience by passing his hand above them: for example, a plastic bag of carrots (including the number therein) and, when it comes to money, a $2 bill, for which he also recites the serial number.
With his back to the artist he can tell what color marker has been used to make a drawing and then proceed to replicate the object in the drawing. And what about the moment when he calls out the name of a woman in the audience and tells her it's all right to go, and she replies, "Bless you; I'm sorry," as she races up the aisle to the ladies room?
Mr. Salem, who has appeared in previous shows here in 1997, 2000 and 2001, is a trained psychologist and scholar of nonverbal communication who swears that his act makes no use of audience plants or stooges and who asserts that he doesn't do anything that can't be done by a 10-year-old with 30 years of practice.
Logic insists that method underlies his mental magic, but no one knows better than the clairvoyant Mr. Salem that it is impossible for audiences to leave the Lyceum without wondering excitedly how in the world he does it.