This is a tricky one. I don’t want to Godwin this review with a cheap and spurious Nazi comparison. But New Repertory Theatre artistic director Jim Petosa says he selected the play “Good,” about a German professor of literature who becomes seduced by the Nazi party, because it has contemporary relevance. He says the relevance has only grown more pronounced throughout the U.S. election season.
So let’s deal with that. With his appeals to racial hatred and his questionable level of devotion to the rule of law, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has been accused of fascistic tendencies. But to liken him to the leader of the Third Reich would be far out of bounds, and unfair. It would also cheapen the level of murderous horror actually achieved by Nazi Germany.
What instead becomes clear in New Rep’s slyly appealing production of C.P. Taylor’s 1981 play, helmed by Petosa, is that the comparison rings true not with respect to the leader of either political movement, but the movement itself — the way unacceptable behavior can be normalized, step by perilous step, until the situation has gotten far out of hand.
Petosa, to the production’s benefit, doesn’t insert any awkwardly overt references to the current day. But he doesn’t have to. At some moments, when Professor Halder (played by Michael Kaye) and his Jewish friend Maurice (Tim Spears) talk about the ascending National Socialist party and assure themselves that events will not spiral out of control, you can hear the audience murmur its uncomfortable recognition.
“They’re bound to drop all that racial [expletive] they had to throw around to get their votes,” Maurice says in an early scene. “They can’t afford not to. I know that, but I can’t believe it.”
Later, one Nazi says of Adolf Hitler: “He’s got us back our own country.”
The story follows a simple arc. Inspired by his experience with his dementia-stricken mother (a very good Judith Chaffee), Halder writes a novel that endorses humane euthanasia. It comes to the attention of Nazi officials, who have their own reasons for desiring an intellectual defense of the practice. Halder discovers that position and respect come along with joining Nazi efforts, and as he continues to collaborate he consoles himself with ever-more-strained rationalizations. A motif is his tendency to “hear” pieces of music as soundtrack to everyday situations; it’s part of his efforts to romanticize and rationalize events. Taylor calls for a live chamber group, but the recorded music used in this production serves perfectly well.
Taylor never really establishes why Halder is considered so valuable, and his rise through the ranks seems like a stretch. But some suspension of disbelief is fair to ask in a play that otherwise feels so real.
Petosa and Kaye know the material well and it shows. They worked together on an off-Broadway production this summer at Potomac Theatre Project, and in 2010 at Boston University’s Boston Center for American Performance. This is a memory play, and the script is filled with scene fragments as Halder’s narration skips around through time and space. The text itself is filled with ellipses. Yet this is a notably fluid production, the 10-person cast working together almost like a dance company as characters enter and leave scenes that are interwoven seamlessly. (Maurice has a habit of limberly climbing up and over a piano upstage.) Many remain onstage for long stretches, including a uniformed Nazi officer (played by a deceptively cheerful Benjamin Evett) who offers a smile to a patron before joining some audience members seated onstage. As characters progressively leave Halder’s memory, they disappear from view.
The director brings his ensemble together for several affecting pantomimes, including an interlude in which they form the bonfire into which Halder has been instructed to chuck a long list of books. The production is filled with thoughtful touches that make you appreciate the director’s hand without being distracted by it.
As the morally conflicted protagonist, Kaye is instantly likable — to start. Some of the playwright’s choices make it difficult for any actor to portray him as appealing for long — he offers a flash of nearly sociopathic lack of concern for Maurice’s well-being in the very early going — but Kaye strives to communicate that this emotionally needy man is responding even more to the companionship offered by his new fraternity than to the more tangible rewards. His equivocations often land on the whiny side, however, and at times we wonder if we’re just supposed to consider him a villain and get on with it. A final, chilling costume change cements his transition, and lands as both inevitable and unsettling.
In an echo of the choice to have Evett’s Nazi officer sit among the audience, a Nazi messenger (played by Alex Schneps, who doubles as a nonliteral manifestation of Hitler) later on speaks in what sounds like a Boston accent.
“You think we might be having a nervous breakdown? The whole thing is a national nervous breakdown?” Halder asks Maurice in a final encounter. You can almost hear the audience murmuring its answer in the affirmative.
The New Repertory Theatre's production of "Good" plays at Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown through Oct. 30.