Tuesday October 11, 2016

Michael Kaye, Christine Power, Jesse Garlick, Judith Chaffee, Alex Shneps, Tim Spears, Benjamin Evett, Lily Linke, Casey Tucker, and Will Madden in 'Good,' continuing through Oct. 30 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown
Michael Kaye, Christine Power, Jesse Garlick, Judith Chaffee, Alex Shneps, Tim Spears, Benjamin Evett, Lily Linke, Casey Tucker, and Will Madden in 'Good,' continuing through Oct. 30 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

"Hitler gave us our country back," an earnest -- if somewhat thuggish -- Nazi in uniform tells Professor John Halder (Michael Kaye), an educated man whose neuroses and anxieties overwhelm him and contribute to his moral numbness.

If the title of the play -- "Good" -- is an ironic indictment of just how easily human values like decency (not to mention human constructs like democracy and law) can be discarded, it's also a rueful... even dolorous... murmur lamenting how individual human beings can so readily rationalize each and every outrage and atrocity they perpetrate against others.

The thuggish young Nazi -- a message courier -- nails it on the head when he talks about the way working-class people... the ordinary folks who can never get a break... are suddenly prospering under the Nazi regime. Of course, the source of this prosperity isn't some miraculous economic prescription for long-term success; it boils down to criminalizing a class of people for nothing more their racial and religious heritage, imprisoning and then murdering them en masse, and stealing their property.

Only one Nazi is in uniform in this scene, but there are two Nazis participating in the conversation. Halder himself is a member of the SS and an intellectual tool of the regime, cranking out propaganda on command. Haider is a professor of literature with an interest in the psychological, and he not only has Jewish colleagues, he's particularly close to one of them, a fellow named Maurice (Tim Spears).

But even as German culture is gradually choked by fascism and Maurice appeals to Halder for help, alternately cajoling and screaming demands for train tickets to Switzerland, Halder gives him the same line of reasoning that he tells himself when he's asked to write spurious studies "proving" the degenerate nature of Jewish literature, or when he volunteers to impregnate the wife of a sterile fellow officer so that the officer can hope for career advancement: What can he do?

Tim Spears, Michael Kaye, Casey Tucker
Tim Spears, Michael Kaye, Casey Tucker  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

What he can do and what he does do are, of course, very different questions, but Halder -- steeped in his terrors and frustrations, and trapped in his own slowly crumbling mind -- is in no position to make that distinction. In a sense, neither are we in the audience, because the entire play unfolds in Halder's mind, with different memories interrupting and displacing one another. Halder's journey from mild academic to Holocaust participant is the through-line, but there are a number of associated narrative threads.

One major side-story is his mother's (Judith Chaffee) slow decline into physical frailty and dementia, a burdensome situation that inspires Halder to write a fateful novel promoting euthanasia as a civil, even loving, option for families faced with having to care for the mad, the mentally handicapped, and the elderly. (The novel is what draws the Nazis to him in the first place.)

Another parallel subplot details the affair he embarks upon with a student -- an affair that prompts him to leave his musician wife and, in a chilling display of supremely delusional self-absorption, press Maurice for the use of a lovely cabin in the woods, far from the tumult of Germany's ever-more-insane society and politics.

The play of memories allows the cast of ten to bound around the stage, interacting with Kaye (and, to a degree, one another) with a sort of deft, daft energy. The play crackles with torment and half-agonized laughter; even Hitler himself (Alex Schneps) is a capering figure, an object more of prankish fun than perverse sadism. Benjamin Evett, in the role of Nazi higher-up Eichmann, is less manic, but still terrifyingly distorted: In Halder's mind, he's a kindly and rational man pressed, like Halder himself, by immense social forces.

How does a nation descend into madness and murder, while telling itself all the while that it's doing great and noble things? How does a man make the same descent? Holder's trajectory mirrors and parallels that of his nation, and this dark pilgrim's progress into Hell lays out a clearly discernible path. It's also an all-too-recognizable path, one we see and hear today, proffered as it is in our own country and our own political process.

Such horrifying tidal forces cannot in fairness be attributed to any one person alone; societies go mad collectively. But one person is usually the tip of the spear, and the face of the horrors. Can any one person likewise personify a stand against such a tide?

Benjamin Evett and Michael Kaye
Benjamin Evett and Michael Kaye  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The constant and overt thing about this play -- the point from which its many varieties of dread proceed -- is the observation that, in Halder, we see a person who is simply too swept up in his own internal spiral even to make a try. He's hounded by merciless earworms -- the phenomenon of music getting stuck in your head, with songs playing in whole or in part on a continuous and maddening loop. He's impotent, and unhappy in his marriage -- but terrified of losing his wife. Somehow, his sexual vitality and a sense of once again asserting control over his own mind coincide with the rise of the Nazis, and the way the Nazis reward him for the work he does in service to their cause. In his place, how many of us would have the wherewithal to stand up to fascism? How many of us would, like the professor, tap-dance our way toward a justification for the burning of books, an inferno that's staged with brilliant immediacy and that clearly devours the pages of Halder's own soul?

Jiyoung Han's scenic design gives us visual and spatial references for Halder's interior mindscape. Triumphal columns rise on either side, but audience seating is located on either side of the stage, too, like jurors' boxes. A piano, painted gray, stands in the back, where a door opens from time to time to reveal a blank red void. Several small stools shaped like bits of squared-off Doric columns, or perhaps Roman temples in miniature, serve as chairs, while a larger set piece of the same design is a platform or a table or anything else it needs to be.

A scattering of sheet music draws the eye to one side of the stage, while a neatly arrayed collection of record albums dots the opposite side. The former represents his wife's carelessness and lack of discipline, but also his own mental disorder; the latter turns out to be jazz recordings that have been re-labeled so as to avoid destruction by a mad dog government bent on moral cleansing, the devil's music operating under cover of strict, if unfairly applied, codes of law and order.

This guy is going to literal Hell in a metaphorical hand basket, and it's our dubious privilege to accompany him. The music plays in fits and starts (Aubrey Dube offers a masterful sound design), but are we listening?

"Good" continues through Oct. 30 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please go to