White Sale

At Agassiz May 10-11 and 15-18

ON route to the CRIMSON from the Agassiz Theater opening of White Sale, Timothy Mayer's second original contribution to this year's Cambridge drama season, your recalcitrant reviewer paused a moment in Brattle Square. He has for some time been convinced that there is no shortest path between these two points, that Brattle Square, and perhaps most of the corner we occupy in south-west Cambridge, are located smack in the heart of what science-fiction writers used lovingly to term a "time warp." Four years of this town, of predictable variety and commonplace brilliance, can do that to a fellow. Places, and the people who choose to hold them, can distort perception; can modify and magnify, enrich and cheapen, help and hurt. Cambridge does things to events and phenomena, and it takes no poet's sensibility to realize the fact. But last night, one could feel more comfortable in the grip of the Brattle Square time warp, because six actors had performed two acts of songs, speeches, and sketches, and because those acts became a uniquely successful artistic explication of what Cambridge is about.

Anyone following preparations for White Sale expected several things. The show could be depended upon to prove moving, disturbing, and funny, to weld gaiety to bitterness as easily as it moved from song to spoken word. The reputations and records of Mr. Mayer, his cast and his collaborators, put White Sale under a real obligation. As it turned out, White Sale met this obligation payed it off with interest, and moved on to do what theater seldom anywhere accomplishes, to deliver on its promises as well as its commitments. Particularly, White Sale delivered on the promise of its suggestive subtitle, "A Cabaret for Cambridge." The payoff is as much subjective as public, so I urge you to go by and collect for yourself. But one Cantabridgian may still suggest something about the pleasures and profits White Sale held for him.

IN format, the show is a musical review. The song texts are Mr. Mayer's and the excellent music was composed by Bradley Burg. In content, it is both the record of a day in Cambridge, from late morning rising til next morning's dawn, and a series of forays into political analysis, artistic exorcism, historical recreation, lyric and comic experiment. Informal in atmosphere, the action of White Sale is remarkable for the case and familiarity with which seemingly disparate ideas, styles, and techniques move together on its stage. These actors, who both take parts in individual sequences and retain strong identities of their own throughout, appear to be good friends. Just so, the recorded voice of William Jennings Bryan seems to rub elbows with a fantasy concerning an ancient veteran of the Battle of Manila. And a talking blues for Edgar Allen Poe (which recounts the remarkable circumstances of his demise in Baltimore, Maryland) is followed by a mocking ballad for Lyndon Johnson, in high Nashville country style.

Mr. Mayer's stagings share space in Howard Cutler's handsome, structural set with four impressive short films by Tim Hunter, a brief slide sequence by David McClelland, and some fascinating footage taken by a recent American traveller to Hanoi. For once, mixed media is something more than convenient compromise. On this catholic stage, it does not seem improbable that Nathan Pusey and Che Guevara should meet to discuss the role of youth and the values of revolution, and in fact, in a dialogue excerpted from their writings, the two gentlemen seem occasionally to agree uncomfortably well.

BUT if the various unexpected materials of which this show is constructed seem to form an uncanny but logical whole, they often do so by contrast. If their contact is familiar, it is also often acrimonious. In fact, the heart of the dramatic technique of White Sale is irony extended and complex enough to avoid the schematization which cripples adventures into ironic dramatic montage. White Sale is in no sense didactic, and the ironies which arise out of the juxtapositions of its sequences have nothing to do with simple undercutting. For White Sale, irony becomes an instrument of investigation, not a tool of argument. And it is through irony that White Sale's vision of Cambridge, as a unique state of mind and as a microcosm of American society, is exposed. The primary irony is, after all, the conception itself. A show which propels an audience from the insular range of Cambridge to the vast expanses of history and world politics, only to pull that audience back again, from the conference table at Paris to lunch at the University Restaurant, is relying on contrast for its most important effects. And the juxtapositions of Cambridge and the world in White Sale produce a profound and remarkable effect. They manage to cut both ways, to demonstrate what is distortive about the habits of mind which add up to Cambridge, and also to establish the fact of national folly. Finally, White Sale is able to suggest that Cambridge may be isolated only in some details, that it may finally be the most valid America-in-the-small that any of us will ever know, that a tentative gesture of love or acceptance at dawn one morning in Cambridge may be, in some weighings, as important as any litany of American failure.

The cast, by the by, is worth the price of admission in itself. I will term Thomas Babe a gifted mimic, Susan Channing an actress of tremendous range, Dean Gitter the possessor of one of the most authoratitive stage presences about, Tommy Lee Jones an actor with a true gift for insightful readings, Stephen Kaplan a protean comic figure, and Marilyn Pitzele a remarkable dramatic and comic singer. Each term will fit the rest of the cast as well, and as may well be imagined, the permutations are incredible. I leave you to work out the details.