By Monica McGivern
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Ever cruised the drama section of your local public library? Oftentimes you'll find collections of plays from the Forties and Fifties entombed on a back shelf, scripts that are well-crafted and thoughtful but rather timeworn and unlikely to pack much punch on a modern stage. That's the feel of David Wiltse's The Good German, a sturdy, thoughtful drama now being given a sturdy, thoughtful production at Florida Stage in Manalapan. This 2003 script about a German professor who hides a Jew during the dark days of the Third Reich might have caused quite a stir in 1945 or even 1955, but in 2005, it seems as musty as those old library books.
The story is starkly simple. As World War II rages, a liberal-minded German woman takes pity on a Jewish publisher named Braun whose wife and child have been killed in a deliberate fire that also destroyed his home and business. Passing him off as her cousin, she convinces her strict, anti-Semitic husband, a chemistry professor, to harbor the refugee in their comfortable apartment. When she reveals Braun's identity, the professor is furious, he's already implicated and can't do anything but go along with her plan. The problem is the professor's best friend, Siemi, is a minor functionary in the Nazi regime. As the war turns against Germany, Siemi moves up in hierarchy, and the threat to Braun and his benefactors grows.
So far, so good. Wiltse offers an articulate analysis of the human propensity for prejudice and the equal tendency to rationalize it. These are important themes, and the play has merit for showing the emotional conflicts Germans underwent before and during the Third Reich. While the professor has nothing but disdain for Hitler, he rants about Jews benefiting from German culture but not, he says, contributing to it. Meanwhile Siemi, whose job requires ever-increasing murderous responsibilities, anguishes over his role as a party to atrocities. And Braun, despite his intense desire to survive, is tortured by his own refusal to deny his Jewishness, a stubborn streak that points to his doom, though he easily passes as an Aryan.
Despite this promise, The Good German never catches fire. Its intellectual arguments remain largely uninvolving, and the grim story trundles on with little dash or spark. Such basic dramatic elements as surprise or suspense are absent for the most part, and the basic dramatic situation is one of standoff -- each character is paralyzed by conflicting feelings. In the end the play comes down to three Hamlets standing around a handgun on a table, and we are left to wonder who will pick it up.
The production features a skilled cast, though the work isn't much of a stretch for some of the actors. John Felix does well as the long-suffering Braun, but he's served up this character type in any number of area productions. Same goes for Tom Wahl, who tends toward characters of tortured morbidity. But both bring clarity and craft to their roles, as does Susan Gay as Gretel, the wife in a too-brief appearance. As the professor, Steven Hauck is properly imperious and off-putting, but he doesn't quite manage to make plausible the character's sudden U-turn from bigot to honorable ethicist.
Louis Tyrrell's staging clearly articulates Wiltse's ideas without adding much theatrical oomph. The plaintive Bach cello musical interludes and the rich, wood-paneled set from Richard Crowell add texture and resonance -- Crowell's design emphasizes the play's moral polemics with tall arching windows that echo Gothic church architecture. But the muted wood tones and Mattie Ullrich's equally subdued costuming, all browns and greens, reinforce the somber mood.
Much of the problem here stems from the use, yet again, of the Jews 'n' Nazis struggle, which has been the politically correct recourse for dramatists, now that Cowboys 'n' Indians and Cops 'n' Robbers have ceased to be as morally unambiguous as they once were. With Jews 'n' Nazis, there's no question of who's the bad guy and no need to establish much characterization. The Jew has audience empathy because he's the victim of prejudice, a useful dramatic device that gains instant audience empathy, seconded only by the hero whose friend or lover is killed in the early stages of the story. The Good German exploits both devices. While the audience is perhaps emotionally engaged, it is not challenged. We know who to root for and what is right. All that is left is to wait for the professor to understand the damage prejudice brings, a long wait indeed.
The play comes to life once or twice precisely because the audience must come to terms with its own struggles, not merely watch at a safe distance the characters' battles. Good theater is not just about characters in conflict; it also ought to be about audiences in conflict. A good play is one that somehow changes the playgoer, if only a little. Otherwise we are merely killing time. The Good German is basically a time killer, albeit an elevated, high-minded one. In an era of crisis and moral challenge, we should ask more of our writers.