theater (reviews)

review: Good

by C.P. Taylor
Directed by Jim Petosa
Featuring Michael Kaye, Tim Spears, Valerie Leonard
Potomac Theatre Project / NYC at Atlantic Stage 2
July 5, 2016 – August 7, 2016 

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[L-R] Michael Kaye and Adam Ludwig. Image by Stan Barouh.

[L-R] Michael Kaye and Adam Ludwig. Image by Stan Barouh.

There is a scene that falls early in the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg that captures in less than 10 minutes what C.P. Taylor‘s Good, as directed by Jim Petosa in Potomac Theatre Project‘s current revival, muses on for several hours. Both works address the question: how can otherwise reasonable human beings live alongside, enable, and eventually become part of a repressive regime? Judgment at Nuremberg looks back on the experience through national trials, an international stock-taking, with several side stories that illustrate the range of experiences under German National Socialism. Good examines a single character’s personal compromises and misguided belief that the national repressive jack-booted fever dream would be temporary.

The differences are in the styles. The distinctions are in the impact. It may be the directorial decision to make Good a bit of a vaudeville (dancing on, mugging at the audience, beginning the show with a plunk on the piano) that dampens the effect, but it’s there.  In Good we watch one man’s loss to Nazism rather than observe a national story. This story focus and the tone of the staging weakens the final impact.

ben wright virginia christine kitchen

[L-R] Ben Wright (Halbestadt) and Virginia Christine (Mrs. Halbestadt) in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

In Judgment at Nuremberg, screenwriter Abby Mann examines a set of post-war trials of judges, a few years after the better-known trials of Nazi military and medical masterminds. After the generals and master plan developers were judged amid international media scrutiny, the focus of subsequent proceedings became the judges who implemented the Nazi legal code, the “Nuremberg Laws,” addressing who could own property, who could associate with whom, which acts of everyday living were deemed illegal. Within the dramatic construct of these trials, the film examples the lives of several sets of everyday Germans who lived under the laws. Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is one of the visiting American judges administering the judicial trials, assigned to stay in the home of displaced and disgraced Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), a German daughter of the military, whose military husband was convicted of war crimes and who represents historical military tradition forced to deal with military service under the Nazis. A married German couple Mr. and Mrs. Halbestadt (Ben Wright and Virginia Christine), Bertholt household servants, stay to serve Judge Haywood. Late one night, over milk and cheese sandwiches, we observe a quiet conversation in the kitchen. They reluctantly answer the Judge’s questions. Yes, they lived in Germany throughout the war, lost a son to service, appear to be good hardworking people. We like them. Yet they claim not to have known about the concentration camps or the treatment of the Jews. They are part of the national amnesia, claim not to have known, yet we have a chilly glimpse of the hook into the common person’s experience — Mrs. Halbestadt chillingly says, “Hitler did some good things.”

Good, Taylor’s entertaining yet meandering vaudeville on the rise of National Socialism through one man’s story also answers the question of how “good” German John Halder (Michael Kaye) goes along on the ride to fascism during the 1930s — joining in military games he missed from the first world war, alienating friends and family, especially a Jewish colleague Maurice (Tim Spears) whose Halder refuses to help in his efforts to leave the country under the looming cloud of Nazism. The story bleeds around the edges, losing power when too many notes, too many characters, too many musical interludes (and characters dancing on and off stage and leaping onto furniture) are brought into this single man’s journey.

The production is most powerful when scenes are focused and there are some good ones — Halder with his Mother (Judith Chaffee) and Halder with his Nazi colleague Eichmann (Adam Ludwig). We feel Halder being pulled away human instincts honed by his mother and his family, and toward the soldier fraternity in ways the music hall moments don’t manage to move — humor takes us out of the moment. Set design by Mark Evancho is spare and malleable, with actors pushing things around as needed. We’re not quite in Cabaret‘s Kit Kat Klub, singing its way into the holocaust, but the staging wants to take us there. There’s no “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” to chill us with a group sense of nostalgia and desire for order leading a country down the wrong road. In this staging of Good, other works are evoked in ways that don’t serve the source material.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 22, 2016)

Playwright | C.P. Taylor
Director | Jim Petrosa
Set Design | Mark Evancho
Lighting | Hallie Zieselman
Sound Design | Seth Clayton
Costume Design | Jessica Vankempen

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