Nazi story holds reminder of the frailty of 'Good' times

March 24, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

C. P. Taylor's "Good" explores the shaky ground separatin complacency from complicity.

In a note reprinted in the program for Fells Point Corner Theatre's grippingly harrowing production, the playwright -- a Scottish Jew who died in 1981 -- is quoted as saying that he grew up during World War II, fearful of ending up in a concentration camp in Scotland or England.

Sound preposterous? If so, then there's no better time for a production of "Good."

The structure of this neatly crafted work mirrors its theme -- an effect skillfully conveyed by director Barry Feinstein and his large, carefully choreographed cast.

Like the protagonist, a literature professor in Germany in the 1930s, the audience is carried along on a wave of good intentions, music and fellowship, as Taylor demonstrates the frightening fallacy of the notion: It couldn't happen here.

At first, the professor, John Halder, doesn't take the Nazi threat seriously. Then, when it's no longer possible to deny the Nazis, he refuses to believe that this anti-Jewish business, as he calls it, is anything more than a ploy to get votes.

The only thing Halder finds unsettling is that he keeps hearing imaginary music -- as if key events in his life were set to music. The play's chief theatrical device is that the audience also hears this music, which is performed at Fells Point Corner by an on-stage trio.

However, while the first act of "Good" at times verges on a "Cabaret"-like musical, there is a major difference. In "Cabaret," the music comments on the action; in "Good," the music is Halder's form of escape.

For instance, when a domestic scene with his wife becomes oppressive, Halder turns it into a make-believe opera in which he and his wife burst into song. And at the end of the first act, when Halder drifts into membership in the Nazi Party, he pretends the event is a scene from "The Student Prince," with the entire cast -- including an actor made up as Hitler -- raising beer steins and singing a jolly, "Drink! Drink!"

How does a "good" man wind up betraying his family, his best friend -- a Jewish psychiatrist powerfully played by Richard Jackson -- and eventually his ideals? Halder rationalizes every step along the way. The professor has established a reputation for being humane, a characteristic accentuated by Joseph Moore's sympathetic portrayal. He tells himself he can help push the Nazis toward humanity (his astute young mistress fears they'll push him the other way).

"Good" creeps up on you, the way evil creeps up on Halder. Except for an overdrawn scene in which Halder imagines the fate of his psychiatrist friend, this Baltimore premiere is as adeptly orchestrated as the music Halder hears in his head.

And, just as pianissimo can be more startling than fortissimo, for me, the most terrifying scene was relatively quiet. A Nazi leader asks Halder for suggestions on humane approaches to euthanasia. The professor replies that the setting should appear ordinary -- a bathroom, for example, where people are taken believing they are going to bathe.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Good"

Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through April 18.

NTC Tickets: $9.

Call: (410) 276-7837.

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