nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
March 16, 2006
Good by C.P. Taylor is about the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s, but its focal point is neither the upper echelons of the Nazi leadership nor the victims of Nazi atrocities. Instead, Taylor has concentrated on the Germans who took the path of least resistance. Good shows a portrait of the German people who ultimately victimized not only others but also themselves by joining a regime whose excesses they did not agree with, but which they did not have moral capacity to oppose.
More specifically, Good is about John Halder, a respected professor of German literature who has an ailing and infirm mother, and who has written a novel sympathetic to the idea of euthanasia. Halder’s book brings him to the attention of the Nazis, who see in Halder an opportunity to bring intellectual credibility to their program of genocide. Although he finds the Nazi Party’s ideology and methods distasteful, Halder is far too preoccupied with his own bourgeois concerns—foremost of which is an affair with a 20-year-old student of his—to do much more than register tepid complaints as he gradually becomes increasingly complicit in the Nazis’ growing catalogue of crimes against humanity. Good takes us through a theatricalization of Halder’s rational and imaginative mind, the leitmotif being an ever-shifting array of imaginary musicians and singers who mysteriously appear at critical moments along the way. Halder continues along his course to the sound of his imaginary musical accompaniments until he eventually rationalizes his way into an SS uniform and a position helping to oversee the extermination of the Jews at Auschwitz.
Long before he reaches Auschwitz, however, Halder confides about his musical hallucinations to his friend Maurice, a Jewish psychoanalyst with little regard for other Jews, wondering if they are some manifestation of his inability to deal with reality. Here Halder is uncharacteristically perceptive. Halder’s inner soundtrack gives an absurd grandiloquence and pretentiousness to his life in his own mind, elevating his own petty struggles to the level of a grotesque epic, which of course makes him oblivious to the real tragedy going on around him that he is increasingly taking a direct hand in. Musical director Charles Geizhals and violinist Kate Cassella perform these numbers with vocal assistance from Good’s able cast, and Jennifer Gordon Thomas does a good job staging both these musical numbers as well as the piece as a whole. Setting up the intimate space almost in the round, Thomas has her cast constantly circling and haunting Good’s central character, and Stephen Arnold’s lighting design helps give this production the mood of a twisted cabaret. The overall effect points to a nationwide delusion of grandeur that is both grotesquely farcical but also very frightening.
Still, too often I found myself disengaged from the actual story being told in Good, and I think this is largely due to the composition and presentation of its main character. Halder himself, in contrast to the music of the piece, is purposefully given virtually no emotional range at all. Daryl Boling in the lead role maintains the same distracted unease whether proclaiming his love to his mistress or discussing the Final Solution with Eichmann, and the same distancing evasiveness in both his public conversations with others as well as in his private and inner musings. It’s a grounded and believable performance for a man as detached as the script presents him, but it is also one that I found completely impenetrable. Without seeing any real humanity underneath Halder’s urbane mannerisms, I found it all too easy to disassociate myself from him and his crimes.
But perhaps more important, Taylor’s script doesn’t really reveal much of a change in Halder, nor does it reveal any new insights into him as the play progresses. Had Halder started out “good”, even if just ostensibly, one could follow either his transformation from a true humanist to a Nazi stooge, or the eventual revelation that he was never as good as he seemed. Instead, I found Halder thoroughly unlikable from the start. Seemingly incapable of any real empathy for his family and friends, and devoid of all but the most academic and abstract ideas of morality, Halder uses his detached notions of objectivity to put his mind at rest while he burns books, betrays his friend, abandons his family, and oversees the persecution and then the extermination of the Jews. He proves a difficult character to emotionally invest in, both because he is repugnant in such mundane and petty ways, but also because he is essentially the same shallow, self-absorbed pedagogue at the beginning of the play as he is at the end. Rather than how a thoughtful person with a normal range of emotions finds himself seduced by the Nazi spell, Good seems to tell the story of how the Nazis recruited the perfect candidate for the job at hand, which to me fell short of being compelling or all that thought-provoking.