Off Broadway Reviews
The play, in rotating rep with Howard Barker's No End of Blame during the company's annual summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2, begins as a comic-tinged satire in the manner of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. But it turns increasingly disturbing as its protagonist John Halder (Michael Kaye) not only turns a blind eye at Hitler's rise to power, but allows himself to become one of its key players.
When we first meet Halder, he is consumed with the daily strife of his life, including trying to care for his wife (Valerie Leonard), who is all but crippled with an anxiety disorder, and his mother (Judith Chaffee), blind and in the throes of dementia. Halder's coping mechanism is the music that he hears in his head (a good deal of it suffuses the play, from Wagner to Marlene Dietrich to a Romberg operetta). He also relies on being able to unburden himself on his close friend and confidant Maurice (Tim Spears), a Jewish psychiatrist.
Like many other assimilated and successful German Jews, Maurice brushes off the growing Nazi threat as a temporary aberration, until his fate is sealed. But Halder is far too self-absorbed to be of much use to Maurice, or to anyone else for that matter. He walks out on his family, takes up with one of his much younger students, Anne, (Caitlin Rose Duffy), and joins the National Socialist Party as a means of furthering his career as a university professor.
The greatest strength of the play, and in the performances by the tight-knit cast under Jim Petosa's direction, is that almost none of Halder's choices appears to be unreasonable, except through the lens of hindsight available to the audience. A nice directorial touch has some of the more uncomfortable conversations taking place downstage with the characters facing directly at us; even without breaking the fourth wall, it's impossible not to squirm.
Hitler himself is a character, though as played by Noah Berman, he comes off much like the satirized and surreal version depicted in Chaplin's film. It is with the appearance of a decidedly non-satirized Adolf Eichmann (Adam Ludwig), however, that we give up even our nervous laughter and realize that Halder has passed beyond the point of any possible redemption.
What disturbs most about the play is its demonstration of how easily a "good" person can become caught up in a movement that leads to horrendous consequences. Even as he dons the full uniform of a Nazi SS officer, Halder clings to the notion that he is serving a greater good. We leave him as he is about to begin his assignment to an outpost in Silesia, a "resettlement camp" known as Auschwitz.
The program notes for the production include this quote from the political philosopher Hannah Arendt: "This new type of criminal commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong." Arendt was writing about Eichmann at the time, but this is the cautionary message of the play, and one that resounds most powerfully in today's challenging and divisive political climate, both abroad and at home.