TIM MAYER, though he is not yet a great artist, is driven by the impulse which makes artists great: the compulsion to publicize his private world, to manipulate the same themes until a new real is created, a realm with all the clarity and ambiguity of a dream dreamed many nights. To those like myself who follow and admire his extraordinarily productive career, the titles which separate one production from the next are as arbitrary as the covers which divide Pierre from Moby Dick. Mayer is always visible beyond the veil of his work. He is the farthest cry from the school of directors who, bowing before script and cast, let a show take its own course. No matter how good the acting, or how arresting the costumes or set, Mayer's plays remain his private possessions. NO one steals the show from him.
THE dramatization of the Book of Job which opened at the Agassiz last night is the latest report on Mayer's development. By his standards it is a modest production. The cast is smaller than the cast for his adaptation of Jesus which played earlier in the summer; Peter Ivers's music is much less conspicuous than in the previous show--though the music seems to be one of the niceties which was sacrificed in the desperate effort to get the show open on time. But their reduction in scale and the last-minute pruning serve only to concentrate our attention on the twin concerns which have been announcing themselves in his work with increasing vehemence at least since White Sale, his first unabashedly personal production: The vision of Mayer as director of showman and the vision of Mayer as artist, poet of the physically tormented. Perhaps because there was so little time to moderate or reshape, and so little time to draw on the formidable talents of his friends, Mayer has given clearer voice to these fundamental propositions about his own world than is his custom. The net effect is to raise questions about the irreconcilability of his tow persona.
Mayer had been directing for years before he began writing seriously for the state. Anyone who has ever seen one of his rehersals knows the perfection of his control of the theater from light board to script girl; his exultation in his own unchallenged command of the mannerisms of theater people. His energy, now revealed as anger, as self-pity, as melodrama, never flags: any needle in any vein to keep the show alive. He is the supreme impresario, diverting his own eyes and the world's from himself to his creations. If he could put King Kong on stage he would. As director he has no respect for the conventional limits of stage and theater. All the world is a prop to him, and there is always the suspicion that when, as he does in Job, he brings a telephone booth or a Coke machine on stage, it is there more as part of his continuing practical joke on reality than for reasons specific to the play. If you're a sucker for an amusement park, it's worth the price of admission to Job just to see the machines and lights.
At the same time, and with equal passion, Mayer is a writer and lyricist with impressive gifts. It may be fair to say that his writing was at first an extension of his directing; it was an attempt to extend his hegomony over his theater, to reduce the number of autonomous elements which could stand against his authority. Had there been nothing more to it than hunger for power, he might have gone on to dispense with the actors altogether and made theater with one flashing machine under his personal control. Maybe the thought has crossed his mind. But turning inward in search of themes, he seems to have discovered in his own ironic detachment the strength or the desperation to make a human confession.
Furtively and cryptically. Mayer has begun to explore his obession with illness and death. It is a measure of the terror of the obsession itself that from the perspective of good health and at the distance of art Mayer still confronts the horror obliquely--through understatement, burlesque, and nonchalance. But do not be misled by these devices into doubting the seriousness of Mayer's purpose. The wail of fear drones in the songs (some of which, like "Cat Scratch Fever," recur in his shows as anthems), in the abruptness of the pacing and in the roller-coaster whirling of the stage machinery. In Job as in Jesus the references, the allusions, the modulations of mood may be too rapid--the whole production too visually and verbally dense--to be digested at one sitting. And it may be, too, that Mayer's profound sense of privacy may forbid him from ever making the more leisurely statements which will make his work more accessible to strangers.
Many of the performances last night came within hailing distance of fully exploiting the resources this highly schematic text provides. Paul Schmidt as Job is the closest to being at ease with his part. His job is subdued, as incorporeal and introspective as any Job could be. Something must be done, however, to rescue his lines from the engulfing roar of the turning platform to which he is pinioned in the second act. Even if Mayer has chosen to mute Job--as he muted Christ--and give a raucous verbosity to his tormentors, there is no excuse for throwing away what lines the character does have. The female lead, Susan Channing, as the Devil, superb actress she is, was so wonderfully bratty, saucy and puckish that it is hard to imagine what liberties she will take when she has fully mastered her part. Michael Dobbson clowns splendidly in a mime of Jonah and the whale--a mime set to cello music in a kind of Mayeresque Peter and the Wolf.
Ivers' music is also scarred by imprecise execution. This notwithstanding, the conception that emerges from behind the cloud of missed notes and dissonances arising from faulty synchronization of pit and state is dramatically and musically satisfying. Job, sung by Channing backed by a chorus, swells to a powerful rant which is the emblem of Job's tormentors. "Chicken in the Free way," a song from White Sale--aside from being savagely self-parodistic--carries the brutality one step further; just as the scene on the spinning table defines Job's position, this brutal glee club number describes the state of his tormentors.
But it is foolish to catalogue the crdits and debits of the opening night of a production as volatile and hurriedly achieved as this one. Only two things are certain. First, than in Jesus and Job Mayer has moved towards an intimacy and self-revelation which may eventually carry him away from his cherished devices of stagecraft and the Cambridge audience which applauded its more conventional manifestations. The other is that Mayer's visions and his struggles with them are worth seeing. For the sake of the man, for the sake of his art.