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Friday, 12 October 2012 14:29

As “Good” as he gets

Written by Andrea Braun

The Details

B. Weller (front) as John Halder, leads the cast of C.P. Taylor's "Good"
B. Weller (front) as John Halder, leads the cast of C.P. Taylor's "Good" photo by John Lamb

Theatre companies keep bashing on about how this play or that play is "relevant to our time," which can get a bit tiresome, but Good really is reflective of us. Despite the fact that it is set in 1930s Germany and was written in Britain 1980, it speaks directly to American politics in 2012.

John Halder (B. Weller) teaches literature at a German university located in Frankfort. He provides for his wife, Helen (April Strelinger), and three children (unseen), plus his needy, cantankerous elderlymother (Teresa Doggett) whose nurse is played by Missy Miller. He spends time with his best (and only) friend, Maurice (Larry Dell), a Jewish doctor. The two of them talk about "panic," a lot; Maurice because he's living in fear, and Halder because he's just living. He believes he has an "anxiety neurosis," though he is forced to admit he doesn't know how other people feel. He's a loner, and aside from his expressed misogyny (he and Maurice agree they really don't like anyone else, and self-loathing Maurice especially doesn't like other Jews), he seems to be an ordinary man. A "good" man. But his is no ordinary time and Adolf Hitler's (Ben Ritchie) is beginning to cause quite a stir.

Halder isn't as good as he likes to think, however. He is selfish and insensitive. He falls in love with a student, and while he feels guilty about leaving his family, he does so anyway. Helen is a musician and doesn't cook or keep house. She seems to spend most of her time reading books about music, composers and technique, in bed however. It is left to Halder to cook and clean and look after the children, but the two perhaps have more in common than they've noticed because Halder is obsessed with music too, only in his case, it isn't the making or study of it; rather, he constantly hears it in his head, his self-identified "neurosis." Maurice calls it his "bands." Halder thinks of seeking therapy for his "condition," but then what is unusual about having a mental soundtrack as background music in your life? Don't we all? It is this habit of mind that makes Halder as relatable as he ever gets.

I assume Halder is an Everyman figure, and if every person is affably dull and aggravatingly self-centered, then I suppose he is. "Goodness," he rationalizes, is like other value-laden words: a false construct that has no place in objective reality which is indefinable because no one is objective enough to know what it is, only that it is. Halder's academic area of specialization is Goethe, specifically the Faust, a man of science who sells his soul to the devil for material gain. Halder's actions create a double with his subject, as he is gradually brought into the National Socialist movement. Of course, he is already a socialist, as an academic in his time and place would most likely be, but he isn't a Nazi (yet). He does so love a uniform (conformity?) though, as he explains in his account of joining a Hessian youth group back in 1916; now he will wear one again. Not incidentally, he is the only character who breaks the fourth wall to try to justify himself to us.

These aspects of Halder make him seem less a loner by choice than a lonely man, which is reinforced by his falling in love with Anne (Rachel Fenton). Does he do the right thing or the "good" thing, good for himself that is. His wife is oddly detached, his mother falling deeper into dementia, and while he talks about his kids a lot, they're not going to be the deciding factor in the direction of his life. He winds up with friends in very high places (Wassilak and Miller as Elizabeth) and an uptick in his social standing and position, while his old friend, Maurice, who keeps repeating that Halder is a "Nazi cunt," begs him to get passports for him and his family to get out of Germany and into Switzerland. Halder argues, and rightly so, that he can't do this without arousing suspicion. He believes that this is all a fad, that it will pass and next year will bring something new and more interesting than an anti-Semitic Fuhrer whose favorite performer is the Jew, Charlie Chaplin (who will one day skew Hitler in a classic parody). Halder cooperates in a book burning, and even finds a way to make that okay (for himself) by explaining that books are an old-fashioned way to learn, and getting rid of them will clear the way for the progressive experiential method of educating the young.

Milt Zoth's staging works with the stylized nature of the physical movements of the cast, even including a few goosesteps for Halder. There is a point at which Halder is positioned squarely between his wife and his mother, the two women he perceives as warring for his attention. As the play nears its end, we notice that all eyes are on Halder at all times. He really is being watched. Good is a deceptively difficult piece of material, and Zoth is on top of it at all times. The actors form various tableaux, and often they sing rather than speak or hum while someone else is speaking. Not all the voices here are musical theatre quality, nor should they be. For Halder, life is literally a cabaret at times, and all the people in that life populate these dreamlike sequences. Even mother has a dance with Eichmann (Troy Turnipseed, also Bouller*). Accompanied on keyboards by Tim Hearn who also plays bits of songs that punctuate moments in Halder's experience ("September Song," for example when Maurice is admiring the beauty of autumn in Frankfort). But, as time goes on, some of the music acquires a more martial tone.

A dramatic moment occurs when Halder finally does put on the uniform that has been hanging on the back wall of the set throughout the play. With his wife acting as his squire, he readies himself to take up his quest, only he won't be searching for a holy object; rather, he will be designing hospital baths for evil purposes in concert with a doctor played by Paul Cooper. He has been recruited because of a paper he wrote on mercy killing, inspired not so much by belief in the concept, but by the frustrations of his mother's life. In the climactic moment, the real set is revealed. It has been behind the curtains, hidden from us, and hidden from Halder throughout his journey to hell. What he finds is, in the end, no surprise because it has been telegraphed to us all along.

The crew credits are confusing. Christie Johnson (no bio in the program) is credited with "scenic design" and Patrick Huber's is "set and light design." Whoever did what has done an amazing job on both. Huber's light plot has to reflect a man's imagination, and it truly does. The set has to haul us up short, and we gasp at the surprise and the horror we know will come. It's truly splendid work. Robin Weatherall is responsible for the sound design and musical direction, another key part in making this show work, as is Cindy Duggan's choreography and Felia Katherine Davenport's costumes.

There is an 2004 article by Alan Plater from the Manchester Guardian reprinted in the program, which talks about C.P. Taylor, a "German Jewish Glaswegian" who was inspired by Brecht's "dictum that for evil to prosper, good men must do nothing." And by opening the play with "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," a tune Halder reminds us was stolen from Chopin. So, the conclusion Plater leaps to from this tossed off bit of information is ". . . if art and music are corrupted the rest must follow." Well, maybe. Of course, the title is ironic. Halder refers to himself as a brilliant man, and he is, at least in his ability to convince himself he is "good." But does it matter if one is "good" if he is "happy"? What is happiness worth? Halder is certainly is more of a reactor than an actor, which does making drawing him to the dark side easier. And I think we need clarity on what "corruption" of art and music actually means. Later on the chorus (the rest of the actors) hum Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which is ironic, but have they "corrupted the melody"?

Weller is a master of underplaying, and he is perfectly cast as Halder. The rest do the excellent work we expect from them. Plater calls Good (Taylor's last play, produced in 1981) "the definitive piece written about the Holocaust in the English-speaking theatre." It is certainly an intriguing examination of the individual conscience relating to the collective society, but "definitive"? That may be overstating the case, as there are literally volumes of Holocaust plays. It is the modern horror story which playwrights keep trying to work out but never quite succeed in doing, because how does one explain the inexplicable? That said, this is a worthwhile and intriguing evening of theatre, and it demands witness and discussion.

*The architect of the gas chambers was Philipp Bouhler, and I assume this is the same man.

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