The New Rep production is polished, surprising, and certainly hard-hitting.
Good by CP Taylor. Directed by Jim Petosa. Scenic design by Jyoung Han, Lighting design by Bridget K. Doyle, Costume design by Megan Mills and Theona White, Sound design by Aubrey Dube. Co-produced by New Rep and Boston Center for American Performance. Staged at New Rep Theater, Watertown, MA. through October 30.
By David Greenham
You could make the argument that CP Taylor’s Good is more relevant today than it was when it was commissioned and premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1981. New Rep Artistic Director and the show’s director Jim Petosa certainly thinks so. In the program he includes two quotes to lead us to make the conclusion. One from journalist Hannah Arendt’s classic Eichmann in Jerusalem, and one from Donald Trump reacting to the Democratic convention this past summer. The Arendt quote ends “everybody could see this man was not a monster, but it was difficult not to suspect he was a clown.” By this point, of course, a Trump quote from the summer seems almost quaint as we’re approaching the end (or possibly the beginning?) of our own monster/clown quandary.
The monster/clown at the center of Good is humanities professor John Halder. This otherwise forgettable man (played with bountiful energy by Michael Kaye) once innocently wrote about the sensible humanity behind the act of euthanasia, based on dealing with his own mother’s (wonderful Judith Chaffee) dementia. The ideas come in handy for a regime that’s looking to get rid of “others” who they deem as objectionable, so soon enough the Third Reich comes calling.
Halder’s life is not without its challenges before “opportunity” knocks. He’s struggling as a professor, husband, and coping with the dilemma of his closest friend and ally ,psychiatrist Maurice (excellent Tim Spears), a Jew battling what he calls “anti-Jew hysteria.” The most frequent partner in Halder’s life, however, is his music. It is always with him, and each moment of reflection, conflict or wonder includes heading some of the soundtrack that makes up his eclectic playlist: Wagner, naturally, by also Chopin, Romberg, Schubert, and even Benny Goodman.
The Nazi Holocaust was, of course, the end of a slow and precisely choreographed brainwashing of the German people and, by extension, the world. Post World War I Germany was depressed and ripe for the “blame it on the others” message the Nazis were peddling. Tellingly, in Halder’s detached world, a letter from a dying and impoverished Beethoven to Goethe begging for money is more important Hitler’s rise to Chancellor. “The swine wouldn’t send him a penny!” Halder complains of Goethe, “Ignored the letter … last days before he died.” It is 1933 and Maurice sees the danger of the Nazis. Halder ignores him: “They’ve got to drop the Anti-Jew pogrom in the long run for the survival of the state.” “I know that, you know that … but does bloody Hitler?” Maurice demands.
We watch as Halder is recruited, learns the “Heil Hitler” salute without thinking, justifies Kristallnacht, organizes a book burning at his college, and writes a white paper on the humanity of euthanasia. Eventually, Halder becomes the Goethe to Maurice’s Beethoven. Maurice begs for five tickets to Switzerland for him and his family. Halder responds defiantly, “I’m a bloody officer in the S.S.” The de-evolution to barbarity doesn’t hit Halder until Eichmann (Benjamin Evett) questions the nature of Halder’s relationship with Maurice. Halder claims it was just professional. To which Eichmann flatly replies, “That’s right, he was a Doctor.” By then, it’s much, much too late.
The New Rep production is polished, surprising, and certainly hard-hitting, right up to the last moment. The costumes by Megan Mills and Theona White are lovely and powerful. The set by Jiyoung Han is as clean and crisp as the subtle image of a swastika on the stone floor. Bridget K. Doyle’s lights are mostly spot on. And Aubrey Dube has the toughest challenge, given how sound is a critical character in the play. The ensemble is strong and committed to the concept – which is sometimes over-the-top and in-your-face, as demanded by the script. At times the New Rep production overplays this message-mongering, as in the final scene when Halder, for the first time, is shocked to find that the music in his head is real. A Schubert march is playing, and he realizes that a group of Jewish musicians are performing the piece in order to soothe those in the camps who are stepping toward their deaths. This scene is thumped too hard in an attempt to make it ‘unforgettable.’ This final moment of recognition is very quick, but Kaye’s shouting the final line doesn’t have the impact that was hoped for.
And this tendency to overplay is the catch to what is a very strong production of a bold play. Director Jim Petosa and Kaye don’t seem to have fully trusted Taylor’s script, the audience, or the possibility that a thoughtful, mostly stable, and rational human being could take such a journey and justify it every step of the way. We could. And we do. Halder genially compromises from Hitler’s rise to Chancellor to the opening of Auschwitz and the final solution; he could be portrayed as a reasonable person who is desperately trying to make the right choices in the face of so many wrong or terrible alternatives.
It’s possible that the sanest among us can make terribly wrong decisions, especially when they’re trying to do the right thing. That inevitability is what makes Good as timely as it is deeply troubling. Maybe the script doesn’t fully deliver on its promise, but neither does this production. Yes, Halder is a quirky character who is in his own head all the time, but the power of the story comes with the times he’s more rational than he is irrational. It’s often too easy for us to dismiss him as unstable and disjointed. That makes it possible for us to distance ourselves from him. Granted, Good takes place at a time of enormous chaos, but it could be argued that the dizzying disorder of today is not all that different. Permitting us to keep our distance turns a production that could be devastating into one that is content to be disturbing.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.