As you might expect, this makes for an unbalanced drama. I'm not sure it's the playwright's intention, but we root for Furtwangler because Arnold is such a poorly drawn adversary. He doesn't see the world in shades of gray, yet the era he lives in demands he navigate a gradient of morality. Harwood has set him up as the villain here and, if the idea is to stage a debate about taking sides, as the title suggests, it doesn't work. The choice is already made.
Director Rafael de Acha has cast James Samuel Randolph, a black actor, as Arnold. De Acha told me that though it's extremely unlikely that an African-American major would head such a hearing in that time period, his intention in choosing Randolph was, quite justifiably, to pick the best actor for the role. Randolph's imposing physical presence, in stark contrast to the more compact Bill Yule, was forefront in the director's mind. I'm entirely in favor of colorblind casting and I am a huge fan of de Acha, but I can report that Randolph's presence adds a layer of obfuscation that the play cannot really carry.
While sitting through Taking Sides, I spent a great deal of time pondering other questions. Has Arnold actually been so affected by seeing concentration camp victims that he feels justified in going after Furtwangler regardless of the degree of the conductor's participation in the Nazi regime? Or has his experience with Jim Crow laws in America in the Forties influenced his views? Most important, does he understand that by lumping all Germans together as evil, he is doing to them what white Americans have always done to blacks? These issues are interesting but I'm not sure the play can handle the extra weight.
At the New Theatre, the scale tilts even further in favor of Furtwängler because of several odd acting dynamics. Bill Yule plays the conductor with a crisp, stylized manner that draws on our stereotype of Germans as punctilious, yet reveals minute personality traits in inventive ways. Randolph, on the other hand, is less subtle. It's possible that no one could carry off this role effectively, but Randolph would be more powerful if he underplayed Arnold rather than presenting him as an overbearing oaf. The rest of the cast is great, but the production often feels like a battle of wills between acting styles, with Yule winning hands down. Not that I'm taking sides.
Written by Ronald Harwood. Directed by Rafael de Acha. With James Samuel Randolph, Iris Delgado, Heath Kelts, Ramon Gonzalez-Cuevas, Edna Schwab, and Bill Yule. Through March 14. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909.