Monday, November 22, 2010

So bad it's Good

Sigh. It's been a great theatrical season so far - although of course not all the theatre I've been seeing has been quite so great. Good, which closed last weekend at the Boston Center for American Performance, has been one such disappointment - but as it was basically a fringe show, I was tempted to ignore it. BUT, John Kuntz says really ethical critics shouldn't play favorites, so . . . for that which you are about to receive, BCAP, may Johnny Hambone make you truly thankful.

And now, without further ado . . .

I went to the BCAP's production quite curious as to why C.P. Taylor's widely-lauded play about one man's slide into Nazism had all but disappeared from the boards after the author's death (I'd never actually seen it before).

But just a few minutes in, I knew why. Good is actually bad - quite bad - but it's bad in that high-minded way that almost guarantees a certain amount of critical respect. BCAP claims the script answers such questions as "How does Nazism happen to a 'good' man? How does it happen to a 'good' people?' But in reality it does nothing of the kind; in fact it actually dodges these questions through a welter of mismatched conceptual gambits.

More's the pity, for these are worthy questions, and worthy of dramatic answers. Answers you imagine might take the form of a detailed, naturalistic portrait of an ambitious German who cuts ethical corners for personal advancement, and then must guiltily rationalize his entanglement with the madness surrounding him even as (perforce) he sinks deeper into it morally just to stay afloat professionally. You can imagine a very compelling drama like that, can't you. I certainly can.

But Good isn't that drama, in part because formally it's a mess, and in part because in terms of content, it has precisely nothing new to say about Nazis, the banality of evil, or really anything at all. C.P. Taylor hasn't written a morally meticulous drama about the downfall of a worthy man - in fact, he's written a play that's meticulous in no way whatsoever (by the finale he has stuffed into it Kristallnacht, book-burnings, Auschwitz, and the kitchen sink). You'd think naturalism would suit his project best, but Taylor instead opts to investigate his fictional protagonist, the novelist "Halder"(whose writings on euthanasia bring him to the attention of the Nazi regime) via stream-of-consciousness - only it's a stream-of-consciousness studded with phantasmagoric effects, a kind of dream-space in which time and space routinely stretch, and then stand still.  Perhaps, we think, this is the consciousness of a man gone mad with guilt (which might, actually, make for a solid one-act).  But Halder is a construct who's sometimes a specific man, and then sometimes, seemingly, an entire nation (he hallucinates most of the German musical tradition, for instance, at high points of Nazi crime) whom Taylor sends wandering back-and-forth through scenes of realism,  surrealism (Hitler shows up as Charlie Chaplin), epic theatre, and (I kid you not) story theatre (when cast members pretended to be a rampaging fire, I had to suppress a giggle).

As you can see, Good is internally contradictory in just about every way you can be internally contradictory. As a portrait of a mind in collapse from denial, it might make sense - at half its current length. But as a portrait of decline, it's just ridiculous - indeed, its protagonist isn't ever very "good" at all; from the start, he never seems to struggle against his tempters.  Halder is happy to jump through every hoop the Nazis ask him to.  It's true that occasionally his rationales are wicked, sick fun (he decides Kristallnacht was actually "humane" because it motivated Germany's remaining Jews to leave the country!). But we never identify with him, and thus never even perceive Taylor's supposed thesis.  And the author's biggest conceptual stroke - the idea that Bach and Beethoven served as a transcendent cultural excuse for German crimes - is actually old hat; it's the shopworn cultural claim that drove much of modernist atonality (and Kubrick used the device to far more devastating effect in A Clockwork Orange, anyway).  It doesn't help things that Taylor can't really sustain a narrative arc - not even through a single scene - and instead gropes obsessively for some effect - any effect - to give us the impression (yet again) that we're slipping down into ever-deeper regions of moral Hell.  Particularly, it seems, if we still like Bach and Beethoven.  Did you get that? WE'RE ALL GOING TO HELL WITH THE NAZIS.

Okay, the play is stupefyingly misguided; the production is arguably worse. There's only one way to make Good hang together - via a towering central performance that through sheer stage magnetism can make all these odds even (and the RSC seems to have had that when it took the play to Broadway with Alan Howard back in the 80's). Alas, lead Michael Kaye delivers a small-scaled turn that usually registers only confusion; he seems as dismayed by the play as we are. And given that central void, director Jim Petosa's production seems to go as mad as the Third Reich - the performances oscillate wildly in style and tone, on a set that's stylish but actually kind of wrong in its fascist grandeur.  Usually in this kind of thing you can find something to praise.  But this time I really couldn't - although a few actors, like Mason Sand and Tim Spears, did escape with their dignity.  I hate to say it, but the Nazis deserve better.

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