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A senile crone frets, petulant and demanding: “This place, it’s a front. Men come up here to go with the women.”
She’s deluded, of course; the hospital nuns aren’t prostituting themselves. But in the end, she’s no more detached from reality than her scholar son, who’s begun hearing music at crucial timesjazz, folk tunes, Beethoven symphonies, and Wagnerian choruses, a soundtrack to the stressful moments of his life. Torn between exasperation and pity at his mother’s fractiousness and incapacity, he abandons her (or maybe just imagines doing so) to a harsh fate; he leaves his alcoholic wife as well, takes a lover from among his students. Around them, 1930s Germany slides inexorably toward the Final Solution, and Adolf Hitler dances to the lilt of a Bavarian drinking song.
This is Good. Which isn’t good, exactly, despite the best efforts of the Potomac Theatre Project.
C.P. Taylor’s grim fable is a tragedy in musical comedy’s cloak, a harshly dissonant heldenleben that follows one Dr. Halder, a professor of literature with a specialty in Faust (read: temptation), as he rationalizes and finally embraces his transformation from humanist academic to active participant in the Holocaust. Throughout, he and his paramour reassure themselves, at first uneasily and then with a frantic kind of blind denial, that they’re not part of any problemthey’re helping to civilize an unstoppable process, palliating the worst excesses of a movement that’s inevitably going to cleanse Germany of the Jews. In the end, self-interest and terror and groupthink help them convince themselves that the Jews are only getting what they deserve, what they should have seen coming. Halder and his lover are, they insist to the end, “good”; Taylor’s terrifying proposition is that these two moral weaklings are, perhaps, as good as humanity gets.
The play’s not-quite-linear narrative seems to fold back on itself like a ribbon of fabric, with interrelevant patterns overlapping and influencing each other. At some point, Halder allows his motherblind, incontinent, and prone to hallucinationsto be euthanized by a sympathetic physician. Or perhaps he merely wishes he has; certainly, he writes a novel in which that is the hero’s uneasy decision.
The bookits “objectivity, combined with compassion”brings him to the attention of Nazi officials, who enlist him to write position papers about, and later inspect facilities dedicated to, the humane and painless termination of “the incurable and hopelessly insane.” In the insidious rhetoric of the official who enlists Halder for the assignment: “This is just another aspect of the way Germans are beginning to come to terms with the world and the human situation as it is…throwing away superstition and mysticism and self-indulgent sentimentality.”
Halder agrees to consult on the projectout of conviction, yes, but also for the sake of political expediency. He joins the Nazi Party, too, then the SSwhich leads his closest friend, an increasingly terrified Jew names Maurice, to call him “Nazi cunt” in one breath and beg him for tickets to Switzerland in the next. Events step ever closer on each other’s heels, until the onetime Goethe scholar who paled at the violence of Kristallnacht finds himself paying a supervisory visit, cloaked in all the ritualistic regalia of a senior SS officer, to the latest facility incorporating his mercy-killing system: a prison camp, somewhere in Upper Silesiaa place by the name of Auschwitz.
“Maurice, it’s just come to me,” he says in what seems to be an internal dialogue just before the play’s end. “Our whole approach has been superficial and simplistic. The Jews, the victims; the Nazis, the persecutors. We’ve reduced the whole complex situation to this stock, simplistic construct.” And in Halder’s fever-dream, Maurice, long since murdered, absolves him of responsibility: “Evolution, isn’t it? Animals go as far along the line of development as they can….They get too big, too heavy. Or too specialized. And then they go extinct. Don’t worry about it.”
This is bracing, bitter stuff, and Taylor’s attempts to mine black comedy from it aren’t always successful. Jim Petosa’s direction is efficient, sometimes even inspiredas in the way he finds both humor and homoeroticism in a bizarre little scene near the end of Act 1but structurally the play is flabby and elliptical, weighed down with excess baggage in the first-act scenes between Halder and the wife he abandons. True, their troubles offer another example of how Halder can’t seem to engage with the problems of othersand that’s the essential character flaw that sets him on the path to Auschwitzbut Taylor illustrates that point elsewhere.
The estimable Alan Wade, a serene and magisterial saint in Washington Stage Guild’s Murder in the Cathedral not long ago, makes moral weakness as uneasily compelling here as he made Thomas à Becket’s moral certitude, and the rest of the cast is as well-balanced as you’d expect from PTP. Lee Mikeska Gardner is especially sensitive as Halder’s desperately frayed first wife, and can it be that the disturbingly Aryan Paul Takacs has never played a Nazi before?
But all their efforts can’t, finally, make the playwright’s strained conceits more than intermittently compelling. Taylor wants Good to be a Holocaust play that works as a universal indictment of casual, incremental human cruelty, but it may be that, with his high-concept structure and his parodic musical scenes and his subtly twisty intellectualizing, he’s throwing too much ammunition at his target.CP