|Benjamin Evett, Michael Kaye, Alex Schneps, Tim Spears & Will Madden in "Good"|
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
Both ethical and theatrical ambiguity are at the heart of the 1981 play-with-music Good by C. P. Taylor, now playing at New Rep Theatre (a co-production with the Boston Center of American Performance). Described as a work that is “not political philosophy but tragedy inspired by historical events”, it traces the concurrent downward moral spiral and upward professional spiral of an unexceptional fictional character, 1930's German Professor John Halder (Michael Kaye), as he incrementally accepts the insidiously growing reach of the Third Reich. Echoing Hannah Arendt's controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil, it's an exploration of the often confounding truth that apparently “good” people (“whatever that means”, as one character says) are capable of extraordinary malice as a result of, among other things, apathy and denial.
When we first meet Halder he is a seemingly moderate intellectual, a sort of musical Walter Mitty with a fantasy life revolving around the frequent hearing of music in his head (opening with Bing Crosby's rendition of I'm Always Chasing Rainbows). He also happens to have written a novel about euthanasia that comes to the attention of some rising Nazi leaders. His mother (Judith Chaffee), conveniently for this story, is more and more being overtaken by her dementia, and his wife Helen (Christine Power) is largely apathetic. There are mundane marital and matriarchal squabbles, as well as more philosophical ones with his Jewish psychiatrist friend Maurice (Tim Spears). He develops a relationship with one of his students, Anne (Casey Tacker) and is offered a position on the Committee for Research into Hereditary Disorders by Oberleader Bouller (Benjamin Evett), an ostensibly benign entity created for purely scientific purposes. This new job morphs, as do most of the peripheral agencies of the time, into a significantly more insidious one, all the while requiring moral compromises of our anti-hero. The other roles in this dangerous game include Adolf Eichman (Evett again), a Doctor (Jesse Garlick), a nun (Lily Linke), Freddie (Will Madden), Elizabeth (Linke again), a Dispatch Rider (Garlick again), and Bok, (Alex Schneps), a character with a strangely strong Bostonian accent. And, of course, Hitler (Schneps again), herein frequently portrayed in a Chaplinesque satirical manner (not completely successfully, any more than Chaplin himself or Mel Brooks ever did). The balance of the play is by and large predictable.
At one point Halder solves one of his own personal family issues by putting his mother out of his misery; at another, he questions whether his whole life has been a performance. It's an expressionistic work with a stream of unconsciousness format that develops the plot via frequent trains of thought rather than chronology, thus more fragmented, unstructured and, on the whole, undisciplined and even hyperventilated. That said, under Jim Petosa's direction, it's a pleasure to watch such a well-developed turn by Kaye (always on stage) and his energetic supporting cast, notably Spears, Chaffee and the always-amazing Evett. If things are here and there a bit over-the-top (and sometimes a lot), there's a lot of intelligent work afoot. And while this production doesn't go in for much subtlety, it could of course be argued that Naziism itself completely lacked nuance. Halder's musical fantasy life runs the gamut from yodeling to klezmer to jazz (described as “decadent negroid swamp jungle music”) to operetta (You Are My Heart's Delight and The Drinking Song) to Dietrich's Falling in Love Again to classical (Wagner's Das Reingold, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring) to a Jewish wedding song and My Blue Heaven. His intellectual outlook fails to condemn his first book-burning (“as long as I keep my copy”) and his idealism (“common interest before self”) has its own hierarchy as he claims “I have a whole scale of things that could worry me: the Jews and their problems....are very far down, for Christ's sake...way down the scale”. For Christ's sake indeed.
At the end of the rainbow, there is happiness: “I am happy.....absolutely”, Halder haltingly declaims. He has accomplished his role “humanely” and asserts “we're not monsters”. So much for massive denial. Is he then a monster or clown? Or, as Arendt put it, someone who learned to sing his conscience to sleep, or just a joiner? And why must we insist there cannot be a dichotomy? Why must it be either/or? Cannot a buffoon also be evil? It's important to keep in mind that this is an agenda-driven work of fiction and interpretation, with some convenient plot devices to maximize theatrical effect. Even the placement of the cast on stage virtually all the time, along with some audience members on stage for the whole performance in a choir-stall or more likely jury-style set-up is an underlying element to involve us all. The creative team is essential to the foreboding storm, from the simple Scenic Design by Jiyoung Han to the Costume Design by Megan Mills and Theona H. White to the effective Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle and Sound Design by Aubrey Dube. The visual book-burning, with the cast's hands evoking flames, is a striking, stunning image.
Today, we may bemoan not just the banality of evil but also the evil of banality. As New Rep's seasonal tagline says, “the past is prologue”. Who can overlook the present heart-felt if misdirected cries by some of the public: “give us back our country”? The political arena still requires choices; life demands choices. As Camus said, “Not to decide is to decide”. At one juncture in the play, Anne opines: “I don't believe in evil”; St. Paul, looking inwardly, saw it differently. And there is plenty of proof that one ought to believe in it, and the influence it has on the banal. We are in real life, as was Halder in fiction, surrounded by profiles in cowardice. The program for this play states that the current electoral mess has roots in such times as are portrayed in it. (One might also point to Orwell's Animal Farm). The vision of Halder's friend Maurice, of a weed struggling to emerge from its being trapped in concrete, is harrowing: “Concrete rots in the end; it can wait”.