‘Good’ – Written by C.P. Taylor; Directed by Jim Petosa; Scenic Design by Ji Young Han; Lighting Design by Bridget Doyle; Costume Design by Megan Mills and Theona White.Co-presented by New Repertory Theatre with Boston Center for American Performance, at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through October 30.
A few short weeks after 9/11, comedian Gilbert Gottfried was participating in a roast for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner when he decided to offer up a tasteless joke about the tragedy. The stunned audience broke into a chorus of boos and hisses, before one patron yelled out, “too soon” – meaning that there would come a time when it would be okay to make jokes, but that was definitely not the time. A variation on the “too soon” theme might be “too close to home” and that may be the case with “Good”, the superbly acted and cleverly directed “play with music” now being presented at the New Rep in conjunction with the Boston Center for American Performance.
Appropriately enough, there have been a number of locally produced works this theater season that mirror this bizarre election year. Flat Earth Theatre (“Blinders”) and Gloucester Stage (“The Totalitarians”) both staged comic productions that dealt with the potential democratic election of a fascist-leaning character in the U.S., but they were a lot easier to dismiss as the absurd comedies that they are than “Good”, a drama that focuses on how an allegedly “good man” was seduced by the lure of career success to aid the Nazis with their most heinous atrocities. And while it may be a stretch to compare Hitler to the current candidate, the hate and misinformation being lapped up by his supporters, combined with the media’s failure to acknowledge that yes, it really could happen here, makes for some uncomfortable viewing.
John Halder (Michael Kaye) is a literary professor in 1930’s Germany, whose fictional novel featuring a “humane” view of euthanasia has sparked the interest of the some of the officials in the Nazi Party, including Hitler himself. In the early going, there is nothing we learn about Halder that would lead us to believe that he would be susceptible to the allure of such an evil philosophy. He’s a devoted husband to his emotionally crippled wife, father to his children, and mindful son to an elderly (and failing) mother, and he has a passion for the humanities as well. He has one small problem, however, which he describes to the audience as “bringing music into the dramatic moments of my life”. In other words, in stressful situations, bands begin to play in his head in OCD fashion – which he uses as a way to escape.
He goes to see his best friend Maurice, a Jewish psychiatrist, (who, like Halder, dismisses the Nazi movement as a political fad), and tries to downplay the affliction, but Maurice tells him, perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, that “people don‘t go to analysts to streamline their lives … they go to free themselves from agony.” And he begins to free himself from that agony, essentially by slowly dismantling his moral compass through a series of rationalizations and justifications that lead to him being a major contributor to the most horrifying aspects of the Nazi reign.
It starts with an affair with a young student, which leads him to eventually abandon his wife, children and blind and demented mother. Along his journey we see him find justifications for book burnings, Kristallnacht, and eventually the death camps – all while maintaining a friendship with Maurice, who watches in horror as his friend calmly turns into a monster. And while it may be the point of the play – that we accept little horrors incrementally like a frog boiling to death as the temperature of a pot of water slowly rises – Halder’s transformation sometimes seems to come with little resistance. Which may also be the point. Is Halder really “good”? His behavior becomes so callous and self-centered so early in the play that it could be that this was his true disposition all along. Either way, some dramatic tension is lost as a result of there being no obvious moral conflict for Halder.
Which is not to say this is not a very good show. It begins almost as a comedy, and in the first act, there are a lot of laughs generated through the humor of observing human behavior. Tim Spears is stellar as Maurice, maintaining a comic flair through even the bleakest of scenes. Kaye is equally brilliant as the disaffected Halder, and by the time we see him putting on his SS uniform to report for work at Auschwitz, he may as well be going to his job as the CEO of a nonprofit. Jim Petosa does a great job directing this challenging work, which surreally combines comedy, drama and a cabaret experience at times. The cast is uniformly solid, with strong performances from top to bottom. Set designer Ji Young Han also deserves kudos for a very effective and multifunctional set.
This is well worth seeing, but those of us who are still a little squeamish about the upcoming election may have difficulty detaching from the implications of the obvious parallels. For more information, go to: http://www.newrep.org/