By Donna Herman
“Good” by C.P. Taylor, presented by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) as part of their 30th Anniversary Summer Repertory Season, is sneaky and thought provoking. Written in 1981, the play opens in Frankfurt, Germany in 1933, and explores how a “good” man goes bad – Nazi, S.S. Officer bad.
When the play opens, Professor John Halder (Michael Kaye), is a writer and professor of literature at the University, and his best and only friend is a Jewish analyst named Maurice (Tim Spears). The two of them discuss with absolute certainty that the anti-Jew “racialist policy” of the Nazis will certainly blow over soon. It is a mere expediency by politicians to get the attention and votes of the public and it can’t and won’t stand. Maurice is terrified by it, Halder is distracted and dismissive. It’s too absurd to give serious attention to.
Halder actually has a lot of problems that he wants his friend to focus on that he thinks are much more important and timely. His blind mother is sinking into dementia, has just come out of a coma in a hospital in Hamburg, his wife seems to be incapable of taking care of their 3 children or the house, and he has this little problem with impotence. To top it all off, he has written a novel about euthanasia that has come to the attention of the Fuhrer who thinks it’s an important work and wants his input on a secret project. It’s not a surprise that he has developed the coping mechanism of hearing music in his head that is so present to him, it removes him from the many emotionally fraught moments in his life.
The self-obsessed jumble in Halder’s head is mirrored in the non-linear action of the play that has all the characters on stage at all times, and the action jumping back and forth in time and place. The audience knows going in what the premise is and we are willing to work for the payoff. We want to understand how a nation of Nazis happened and how we’re different. Hitler and the Nazis are the biggest boogeymen in modern history and this deep into an election year where an unthinkable candidate has been likened to the leader ad nauseum, we want to know – are we followers?
We watch uncomfortably as we’re fed the familiar tropes of the spineless, impotent man. There’s a whiff of possible underlying perversity thrown in but quickly dismissed. There’s the vague threat issued third hand by Halder’s wife that her father says he “might” lose his job if he doesn’t join the Nazi party. But there’s never a confrontation, or an internal struggle expressed that allows us to comfortably say “THAT! That’s where I’d draw the line.” It’s not that the actors aren’t giving us finely drawn portraits of nuanced characters, they are. Michael Kaye as Halder and Tim Spears as Maurice draw us in immediately and we believe them and their choices. Although I was squirming in my seat, waiting for a big dramatic moment that didn’t come, I found myself admiring Halder’s nimble intellectual footwork in justifying book burning while despising his cowardice towards helping Maurice and his family get to Switzerland.
In the end, I walked out of the theater dissatisfied. I had the nagging feeling that I hadn’t gotten what I came in looking for. Until it struck me that I had come in looking for easy reassurances that it couldn’t happen to me and it couldn’t happen here. The two bedrock assumptions of my life as an American born 8 years after WWII ended. And the two assumptions that are as perilously close to being threatened as they have been since I’ve been alive. In the final analysis, that’s the subtle genius of this play, and why I applaud the PTP/NYC for including it in this, their 30th Anniversary Season. You may agree with me or not. But you will certainly be thinking about it long after you leave the theater, and that, to me, is a big win.
“Good” by C.P. Taylor, directed by Jim Petosa
WITH: Michael Kaye (John Halder), Tim Spears (Maurice), Amanda Whiteley (Sister, Elizabeth), Christo Grabowski (Freddie), Valerie Leonard (Helen, Halder’s wife), Judith Chaffee (Halder’s mother), Adam Ludwig (Bouller, Eichmann), Caitlin Rose Duffy (Anne, Halder’s student and lover), Jesse Garlick (Doctor, Dispatch Rider), Noah Berman (Bok, Hitler).
Scenic design by Mark Evancho; lighting design by Hallie Zieselman; costume design by Jessica Vankempen; sound design by Seth Clayton; Production Stage Manager, Evangeline Rose Whitlock; Production Manager, Hallie Zieselman; press representation by David Gibbs, DARR Publicity, marketing/advertising by The Pekoe Group. Presented by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) Cheryl Faraone, Jim Petosa, Richard Romagnoli, Co-Artistic Directors; Alex Draper, Associate Artistic Director. At Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street. For tickets www.ptpnyc.org or call 212-352-3101. Through August 6, 2016.