Early in his life, playwright/actor/arts administrator David White remembers his parents taking him to the theater and to the movies in their home town of Saint Louis, Missouri. Most vivid in his memory is the story of “Frankenstein.” White laughs as he had just told me that his folks took him often to plays and movies that were suitable to his age. “Frankenstein”? “Probably not appropriate, but it stuck with me.”
He recalls a particular moment in the movie when the monster is feared to be in a chest of drawers. When the woman opens it, he’s not there, but comes crawling through a window behind her. “I still remember that moment. It was so intoxicating; and look what I’ve just written.”
He developed a love for the detective mystery movies of the ’30s and ’40s. These early influences are coming to full bloom with the current production of his play “Slippery as Sin” that plays at Trenton’s Passage Theater Thursday, May 17, through Sunday, June 3. This is his second play produced at Passage; his play “Blood” was produced in 2009.
White sets the stage for “Slippery as Sin” as reminiscent of those old mystery melodramas. “People have gathered together in an old dark house. There are secrets, an inheritance, things like that.” There is a visiting master detective and perhaps a master criminal.
White adds, “And if he doesn’t exist, why do we think he does? Who is committing the crimes? What is the nature of truth?” Lest we think it’s too dark, he reminds us that first and foremost it’s a comedy, “a farce loaded with plot twists.”
Director Adam Immerwahr keeps him in check any time the play gets a little preachy. “The kind of twist on it is that it’s a parable for contemporary American paranoia. So the fears that people have in the play are similar to the fears we have now: losing a home, being fired from a job, running out of money. It takes place during the Great Depression. The same anxieties are present today.”
As in the old films, the promises of a logical approach to mystery turn out to be a solution based on biases, White explains. “In the end, it’s always the fault of a minority.” He began writing this play about the time there was “all the hubbub about Obama’s birth certificate and the building of the mosque near the World Trade Center site,” White says. “At the time there was a lot of rationalization for not trusting and inventing your own truth to suit your own set of beliefs.”
During one rehearsal, White arrived unnoticed to hear the director telling the cast; “David thinks this play’s about these big ideas, but I don’t think he knows how funny it is.”
White does know that farce is a good delivery system for great ideas. “It doesn’t hit you over the head. One thing I’ve been doing during the rehearsal process is cutting out the preachy meditation stuff in favor of moving the plot along. I hope that people will pick up on this undercurrent. But it is a morbidly funny play. There are all kinds of ways to be murdered. It’s very Edward Goreyesque.”
A special treat for the audience is that Passage Artistic Director June Ballinger will again take the stage as one of the cast, the matriarch of the house who, to make financial ends meet, has turned to being a fake psychic while what she really wants to do is have the wherewithal to toss huge parties.
In real life both Ballinger and White are kept busy running Passage Theater and its outreach programs, so it’s good therapy for their artistic natures to get a little self-expression time and revisit their personal arts. White began his theater career as an actor. In fact, he doesn’t remember when he wasn’t into acting, beginning with grammar school. And he’s always written as well.
“In elementary school it was all I thought about. I was in plays, I did plays, I went to see plays at St. Louis Rep. I loved seeing actors after the show come through the lobby in street clothes. I’d hang around. The difference between the real person and the character was always such a mystery.”
He took acting classes for young people and did theater in high school and college. “If anything, I focused so much on acting and went through college (University of Missouri in Kansas City) and graduate school (University of Pittsburgh) lacking a certain intellectual curiosity,” he admits. Laughing, he continues, “I was one of those guys who’d say, ‘Well, I don’t need to learn anything else. I don’t need to learn math, for god’s sake.’” He’s doing lots of catch-up now as managing director at Passage.
But he wrote his first full-length play in college and saw it produced in graduate school. “I wrote it when I was 21, and it reads like something written by someone who doesn’t quite know how to write what he wants to write.” He moved to Chicago where acting was his primary focus. “I’d write for fun from time to time.” He wrote articles for film magazines and published a novel in 2007. The tribulations of being an actor, always fighting for jobs, and working a “day job” to make ends meet took their toll. He and his wife, Allison Demarco, decided to move to New Jersey and live for a time with her parents in Princeton while they scoped out New York theater.
Not able to stay away, White volunteered at Passage Theater to help with the youth outreach program. This developed into a full-time job, with Ballinger encouraging his writing. First he wrote short plays for the teen classes, then “June challenged me to write for an adult audience.” He wrote some one-act plays that they workshopped at Passage. “Then she said ‘Why don’t you try writing a full length?’ That’s when I wrote ‘Blood.’” Recently he was thrilled to see a second production of “Blood” done at Dreamcatcher Rep in South Orange.
White has been at Passage for 10 years and has directed programs for young people as well as writing plays for them. Nurturing comes naturally to him. While he was in graduate school, he and other students toured truncated versions of Shakespeare plays to area high schools. And his parents couldn’t have been more nurturing of his talent and career choices.
“They’ve always been very supportive. My parents came up to see me perform while I was in college. I thought they were going to have the big discussion where they think I should do something other than theater. Instead they said, ‘We’ve been talking and have decided that life is too short not to do something you love. It will be difficult and you need to figure out how you’re going to make a living, but we want to support you.’ Not with money; they couldn’t fund my theatrical life indefinitely. They acknowledged that it would be difficult. But I had their emotional support.”
The artistic bent of his family comes mostly from his mother, an English teacher who wrote poetry and was also a photographer. The nurturing of youngsters, from his dad, who was a guidance counselor. Both are retired now. White’s brother, Bradley Dean White, is a singer/songwriter whose first CD just came out. He also teaches music to kids.
The legacy continues. In August, 2010, he and his wife adopted a little boy, Nicholas, now almost two years old. When I talked by phone with White, he had called me from his car. “I am sitting here talking to you in the parking lot of the music class that I took him to this morning. His grandparents met me here and take him home, so I can talk to you, then drive directly to work at the theater.” I guess it’s never too soon to start that artistic journey with music classes. Drums? Maracas?
“I’m glad I was a little bit older when we got this child. Earlier, I would have been thinking, this will take away time and I’ll never become famous. I don’t have that concern any more. A child is a lot of work and I don’t sleep, but it’s also so much fun. The number one thing in my life is to play with my kid.”
Slippery As Sin, Passage Theater, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Thursday, May 17, through Sunday, June 3. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.