Pardon the overworked metaphor, but playwright-novelist Davide Wiltse’s The Good German is like a certain type of very expensive wine. It initially presents itself as pleasant and interesting but not exceptional, and then begins changing textures and flavors, revealing layer after layer of sensorial secrets the longer you hold it on your tongue.
In director Kent Nicholson tidily gripping, intensely acted production at the Marin Theatre Company, this viticultural comparison is especially apt. By the time the lights go down on Wiltse’s intoxicating, philosophically complex drama about a frightened Jewish publisher being hidden from the Nazis by a mildly anti-Semitic chemistry teacher, you will certainly know you’ve experienced something theatrically above-average, if slightly dry and out of reach. But I suggest that it is only after you’ve pondered and discussed the play that you are likely to truly begin enjoying it.
The penultimate show in MTC’s impressive 40th season (wrapping up in May with Sandra Deer’s The Subject Tonight Is Love), The Good German treads the familiar ground of other rise-of-Nazism dramas, from Goodrich and Hackett’s The Diary of Anne Frank to Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. This is material that has been revisited over and over since Hitler was found in his bunker and the truth of his horrific final solution was revealed to the world.
There is a tendency, among writers, to work on an audience’s emotions when telling the story of regular folks caught up in the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Such plays typically focus on the human toll of the Holocaust, showing the cost in lives and psyches that is the result of so much evil unleashed at once in the world. It is not hard to create gripping drama when describing the plight of an innocent girl trapped in a secret room or of activist artists giving in to fear and intimidation as their numbers slowly diminish.
In The Good German, Wiltse does something far more difficult: he gives us four “good” people, and within 15 minutes kills off the only one who is identifiably good, the kind-hearted Gretel (Anne Darragh), gunned down following an underground meeting of anti-Nazi activists. In fact, one of the first lines delivered by the caustic chemistry professor Karl (solidly played by Warren David Keith), is “I’m not easy to like.” Indeed.
Proudly antagonistic and fond of offering offensive philosophical observations, Karl is a testy tangle of selfish indifference and grudging human decency. The same could be said for Herr Braun (Brian Herndon), whom Gretel agrees to harbor after his home and business are burned down with his wife and children inside.
Simultaneously enraged and terrified, Braun despises Karl for his casual put-downs of Jews (“One grows fond of a dog in six weeks; Jews evidently take longer”) but is far more concerned about Karl’s low-level Nazi Party friend Siemi (Darren Bridgett, in a gripping, standout performance), an unstable man who grieves for his country while slowly embracing the very madness that engulfs it.
One point that is made repeatedly is that the German Jews, faced with abuse and deportation and extermination, seem unwilling to fight for their lives. As the play unfolds, it narrows its focus to the causes and costs of inaction, the excuses and rationalizations that lock it in place, and the messy, ragged results once one is finally forced into action. Cruelty can be attractive, and goodness, struggling to survive a growing evil, can’t always be pretty. As Gretel says early on, “It’s what you do in the end that counts, not how gracefully you do it.”
In Wiltse’s intelligent, aggressively unsentimental script, the characters discuss these matters through elegant, attractively quotable debates. Throughout, the characters never stray into black-and-white simplicity, and a refreshing, open-eyed cynicism remains at work at all times, as when one character drily concludes, “Tolerance is just good manners.” In the end, The Good German refuses to wrap things up with easy or comforting answers, and those unsolved questions–unnerving and irritating as a splinter beneath the skin–may stick around long after the final fade to black.
‘The Good German’ runs Tuesday-Sunday through April 15 at the Marin Theatre Company. March 28 at noon, preshow talk; at 1pm, matinee; at 6pm, singles night reception. Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm and 7pm; April 14 at 2pm. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $19-$47; Tuesday, pay what you can. 415.388.5208.
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