Do the Wrong Thing

True story: A young seminary instructor was discussing the nature of evil in his class when a woman raised her hand and told him she did not believe in evil. "Really?" he said. "What do you call Auschwitz?" The student replied, "Well, it's evil for me." The insulated arrogance of that reply--the notion that good and evil are always and only relative--leads to all kinds of murderous mayhem in English playwright C.P. Taylor's Good. The riveting Hunger Artists production is cool enough to keep its audience thinking and warm enough to prick the conscience; in Taylor's morality play, evil remains as seductive as ever.

Set in 1930s Germany and openly presented as an allegory for modern audiences, the play is the story of professor and Goethe expert John Halder, who thinks of himself as a decent sort of fellow. His best friend is Jewish. He doesn't believe the Nazis really intend to kill the Jews. He thinks all the hateful rhetoric is just about organizing the masses--after all, how could Germany get along without its Jewish doctors, lawyers and intellectuals?

But then, it really isn't convenient to recognize evil for what it is. After all, "Johnny" is a respected academic at a prestigious university. He has a wife and two children. His father-in-law, an important behaviorial psychiatrist, wants him to join the Nazi party to protect his position at the university. So he does, ostensibly for the sake of his wife and family--whom he later deserts for a pretty coed.

Johnny's problem, of course, is that he has no moral center, only a vague sense of his own goodness. If he does something, well, then, it must be all right, because he's an all right guy. Take the death of his mother--an annoying old lady suffering from senile dementia who he believes would be better off dead. A novel Johnny has written about the humanity of euthanasia comes to the attention of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and Johnny is sent as an advisor to a hospital dedicated to offing old folks past their prime. Johnny wonders--can't the execution chamber be made to look more familiar and ordinary? A bathroom perhaps, to which the victim is led for a comforting bath? This eerie foreshadowing of the death-camp "showers" is not lost on us.

As Taylor's chilling story unfolds, Johnny grows increasingly adept at rationalization and denial. It takes a creative act of will by this cultured man to oversee the burning of books at the university. From there he proceeds to oversee the managed murder of deformed or insane children and adults, and finally, to inspect and advise on "humanitarian" genocide at Auschwitz itself.

Taylor doesn't allow his work to become simply another political polemic. As a character, Johnny remains a "nice guy"--kind to his ex-wife, worried about his kids, comforting to his doomed Jewish friend. And he's as rotten as they come, outfitted by play's end in an SS uniform and having not the first idea how he got there.

Director Jeremy Cole has a meticulous eye for detail and a painter's sense of design; looking at any of his shows is a visual treat. Throughout the evening, Cole artfully "freeze-frames" certain characters so Johnny can comment on them for the audience. At other times he trots out the whole cast and arranges them in luscious poses against the back wall of the stage.

Taylor has written his play as a musical drama, and Cole has his singers artfully re-create period music, often with a touch of parody. When Marlene Dietrich (Kristin Tieg is adorably funny) emerges to sing the fabulous "Falling in Love Again" from the 1930 film The Blue Angel, Cole underscores the sexism of the day by having Johnny's frumpy wife (played with delicate restraint by Paula Harvey) and his young mistress mimic Marlene's sexed-up motions like a pair of back-up singers. It's very amusing and also very subversive.

Curt Pesicka gives another substantial performance as Johnny--he's masterfully ordinary and entirely believable as an academic just enough out of touch with reality to be able to explain away his wicked deeds. G. Scott Campbell gives a passionate performance as Maurice, Johnny's Jewish friend. And Rebeka Buric is achingly sweet as Johnny's conscience-free mistress. With Hitler and Adolf Eichmann themselves singing and dancing across the stage at times, one might expect chaos--or absurdity. But this is a disciplined, talented cast, and as extreme as things sometimes get inside Johnny's head, the company never indulges itself too far.

Taylor's play is really about the kinds of choices people make every day; the kind of little compromises with evil that allowed the Nazis to take power and that to this day lead to atrocities around the world. A familiar theme, yes, and repeated to good effect here.

Good, through March 1 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, 893-5438.

 
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