If a man combines alchemy, soothsaying, and a cheerful disregard for gravity in his act, he can’t expect to be left alone when the show’s over. Invariably, someone is going to buttonhole him and insist he repeat some trick or another. This evening at the Waldorf-Astoria is no exception.
“I’m a cynic and a skeptic,” booms Bruce Allen, a barrel-chested advertising man from Indiana. “I really need to see you bend that wineglass again.”
Gerard Senehi calls himself the Experimentalist. He makes pens and eyeglasses and long-stem roses jump, seemingly of their own accord, out of people’s hands; he changes the times on their watches; he bends keys and coins while they’re still in their owners’ suspicious grip. And in almost every performance, he can be counted on to bum a cigarette from someone in the audience, light it, and then . . . let it go, leaving it hanging in midair before it sails back and forth between his outstretched hands. (As a grand finale, he grabs it with his teeth and takes a puff.)
“Didn’t you see the show?” Senehi asks.
“Yes, I saw the show!” says Allen. “But that bent wine stem just killed me. I’d love to see that one more time.”
The wine stem’s nice, but me, I prefer the quieter, minimalist stuff Senehi does, the stuff involving almost no props at all, suggesting he has full visibility into our thoughts. He guesses the words we’re thinking; he guesses phrases we’re staring at from books off our own shelves.
Senehi stares at Allen’s watch. “How long have you had that?”
“Take a deep breath. Blow on it. Notice anything?”
Allen consults. “It stopped. That’s impossible.”
Senehi nods. “Take another deep breath. Quick. Blow on it again.”
The watch is now ticking. Allen laughs, then gets over it. “That’s nice,” he says. “But Gerard . . . what about the glass?”
Ah, that glass, that glass, that glass: It’s Senehi’s signature piece (though he borrowed the principle from a German magician, Ted Lesley). The volunteer holds the stem of his or her wineglass very tightly, releases it, and whiz-bang, presto, it has bent like a bolt of lightning.
Senehi refuses to repeat the trick. Instead, he picks a fork up off the table, grips the handle with his left hand, and, with his right, gives a hoodooish wave. The neck twists 360 degrees, forming a perfect corkscrew. “Oooooh, that’s great,” marvels Allen. “Just great.”
Mary Falvey, a senior vice-president at Resort Condominiums International and the woman who hired Senehi for the evening, wanders over. “Look at that!” Allen exclaims, waving his coiled prize. “Look at that! Look at that!”
“Whoa,” she says. She stares at Senehi. “So . . . is it real, or is it magic?”
Senehi beams with pleasure. “Ah! Perfect! Exactly!” he says, giving her a seductive smile. “You’re in just the right place.”
Gerard Senehi hates the term magician. It suggests top hats and bunnies and ladies hewn in two. Mentalists, on the other hand, rely on the thoughts and personal effects of other people to bring their acts to life. For Senehi, the joy is in this interaction, and the spectacle is in the storm of questions it generates: Do you have magnets implanted in your fingertips? Did you hypnotize me? Do you ever go to the racetrack?
Though Senehi began his professional career in earnest only about four years ago, he already commands between $4,000 and $10,000 per performance. Those who book him say he makes an impression unlike anyone else. “Watching most of my performers, you say, ‘That’s really cool—what a wonderful effect,’ ” says Bill Herz, founder of Magicorp Productions, a huge booker of mentalists and magicians for the corporate world. “But with Gerard, you say, ‘I wonder if it’s real?’ There’s an astonishing believability to what he does.”
I certainly thought so the first time I saw Senehi. It was Christmastime, at a private party, and even before he took center stage, he had created his own buzzing energy field. He was expensively dressed but shy; he is handsome, with big, liquid eyes, but did not flirt. He spoke with the untraceable accent one associates with Bond villains, but his manner was natural, childlike, affectation-free.
Then Senehi began his performance—bending wineglass stems, floating objects, the whole bit—and the amazing thing was, his stage persona remained exactly the same. He was charming and slightly awkward and totally unslick. He used no canned music, which even his most accomplished cohorts do, and he didn’t rely on any patter, which still tends toward the rim-shot yakety-yak of the Vegas lounge. (For example: “You’ll notice I have three balls—hey, I’m not proud!”)
“When Gerard performs,” says Allen Zingg, a well-known fellow mentalist, “it’s almost like an absence of a performance.”
Whatever it was, it startled all of us speechless. Some of it was the booze, I’m sure, but I think most of our pleasure came from the charged, liberating innocence we all suddenly felt. These were tiny miracles we were seeing. For most of us, this was as close to religion as we’d ever come.
The next day, I called one of my closest female friends to tell her about it.
“There has to be some explanation,” she said, sounding surprisingly cross.
“I know,” I said. “But this was a rough crowd, and you should have seen how promiscuously we gave up our cynicism. It was like some sort of religious experience from the sixteenth century. A colleague of mine declared he was a witch.”
“It seemed like the simplest explanation at the time.”
“Did he try to pass himself off as genuinely psychic?”
“That’s just it. He wouldn’t say.”
“Because he wasn’t. He isn’t.”
“I know. I know. I know.” And I did know.
Of course I did.
Okay. so I've gathered together a group of scientists at my friend Brian’s new loft because I’m curious to see whether they’re as flappable as I am. They’re not physicists or engineers, who might be better equipped to explain Senehi’s techniques, but they’re all analytical people, all trained to come up with hypotheses and test them for a living. There’s Terry, a professor of bioinformatics at Rockefeller University; Larry, a biochemistry professor at Columbia Medical School; Dave, a neuroscientist at SUNY-Stonybrook; and Dimple.
Dimple is the guy I really want Senehi to meet. He’s a good-looking and outrageous polymath, a physician-in-training who’s just finished his doctorate in neuroscience but earns a handsome living as a screenwriter. I figure if he doesn’t have some creative explanations for what Senehi does, no one will. He also comes from a long line of astrologers to the kings of India. His father abandoned the profession when he read the palm of a friend, foresaw the death of his child, and watched it all come true.
Dimple believes in none of this stuff.
“Let’s lay this on the table right now,” he declares, pretty much the moment he and Senehi are introduced. “There’s no such thing as psychic phenomena. ‘Psychic’ is how people describe something that can’t be attributed to a single sense. Five hundred years ago, a burp was probably considered psychic until they discovered gas.”
A half-hour later, when Senehi begins his act, he makes a beeline for Dimple. “Can I have something of yours?”
Dim removes his glasses.
“Hold them like this . . . ”
Dim keeps them unfolded and places them flat in the palm of his hand. Senehi flutters his hand above them. They pop upright.
“Telekinesis,” says Senehi.
There’s something else that Dimple’s father accurately predicted: The shrieking car wreck that nearly killed Dimple when he was 17 years old.