Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Two New Solid, Socially Relevant Dramas:
The scene is the living room of the home of Karl Vogel, a university chemistry department chairman, and his wife Gretel, who is a nurse. Gretel brings a Jew, Wilhelm Braun, to their home without Karl's knowledge. Braun's wife and child were burned to death when their house was set on fire, and he is hiding out from the Nazi authorities. Karl very reluctantly agrees to let Braun live with them (serving as housekeeper) and even obtains forged identity papers for him. Karl and Gretel tell their friend Siemi Tauber, who is a minor official in the Defense Service, that Braun is Gretel's cousin.
Although The Good German is quite eventful, its strength lies in the intricacies of character of its four protagonists. They are drawn with the shadings and contradictions of real human beings. And, particularly in the case of Tauber, they change as events affect them.
Paul Murphy is an exemplary Karl. A more than slightly anti-Semitic, pompous, self centered windbag, Karl is quite willing to accept and justify the racism and barbarity of the Nazis. However, Karl is devoted to Gretel, and goes along with Gretel's strong desire to hide Braun. Karl often challenges Braun, expressing contempt for Jews and justification for persecution of them. The imposing Murphy, with seeming effortlessness, establishes a slight disconnect between manner and words enabling us to sense that Karl is trying to convince himself of ideas that he knows deep down are unsupportable. This disconnect disappears when he ultimately is forced to face the extent of Nazi atrocities.
Jane Keitel fully engages our sympathy and affection as Gretel, who unbeknownst to her husband, is active in the underground aiding Jews.
Walker Jones has the most complex and difficult role here and acquits himself most well. You see Siemi Tauber is an extremely nice man. However, he learns that he is not a good man as he rises in the local Nazi regime. Siemi will murder helpless innocents to protect himself. Jones embodies the full range of pain and conflicted emotions which consume Siemi, while making us recoil at his evil.
Brendan Patrick Burke is convincing as the broken Braun. The role is well written. An assimilated German Jew, who expresses feelings of shame at the appearance of orthodox Jews in black hats, Braun is a very ordinary man turned into a fallen victim by circumstances beyond his control. Burke's portrayal reveals the stubborn dignity that may be all that Braun has left to sustain him.
Although the dialogue is sharp and the issues compelling, there is an obvious attempt to skew the dialogue so that it reflects negatively on conservative opinion on today's American political issues. It would be better had Wiltse allowed the audience to draw its own lessons from his cautionary play.
Playwrights Theatre Associate Artistic Director James Glossman has recently directed a workshop of The Good German which brought about revisions by Wiltse in this play which had its world premiere a couple of years back at the Westport County Playhouse. His direction of this Playwrights co-production with the Shadowland Theatre (Ellenville, NY) is clean, clear and concise, a perfect match for the material at hand. The set design by Drew Francis uses wood accents (including ceiling beams) to effectively and economically convey the feel of an upper middle class German home of the era.
The Good German is engrossing and thought provoking. It is a pleasure to see a well constructed, old fashioned new play in the mix here.
The Good German continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m./ & student matinees) through October 22, 2006 at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-514-1787; online: www.ptnj.org/.
The Good German By David Wiltse; Directed By James
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Seret Scott's lovely two character, full-length one act play begins as the 40+ year old Bennie recalls life on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1963 where "nobody let class get in the way of protest." Bennie (a junior) and JoJo (a sophomore) are undergraduates. Both young African-Americans are the first generation of college students in their families. JoJo is already a protest leader whereas Bennie has participated in a campus civil rights demonstration only in order to get JoJo's attention.
Although an undying affection is quickly established between Bennie and JoJo, for the next twenty years, they will be kept apart by incompatible goals. JoJo will surrender her scholarship and drop out of school in order to work for civil rights in the south. She feels the need to be socially active on behalf of her people. Bennie does not believe in the efficacy of demonstrations. He is determined to graduate and pursue a career in finance in order to overcome the effects of discrimination.
Essentially, the play covers the next ten years. JoJo spends the first six years working on voter registration drives. When locals no longer want outside intervention, she is forced to step down from her leadership position. JoJo spends the next four years in Southeast Asia (mostly Vietnam) as a social worker aiding orphans (often the progeny of African-American GIs and Vietnamese women). Bennie becomes a very successful stockbroker (first in the USA and then in Italy when sent there by his firm). Bennie also establishes programs to train less educated African-Americans on making investment decisions (and using their money to benefit civil rights activity).
Another ten years pass in a flash before Bennie and JoJo meet for the dénouement. There seemed to be no accretion in the personal stories of Benne and JoJo nor in the public events chronicled in this brief section of Second Line. The resolution of their relationship could be moved up ten years, adding to the work's tightness and credibility.
Yes, the play is a primer on relevant political and social issues. However, they are presented in a winning, personal manner as it is filtered through the eyes and experience of our uncoupled couple. One prime example is when JoJo describes the training which she gives to activists demonstrating in the south ("In the eyes of Jim Crow, one is a victim, two is safety, three is a mob").
This is actress-director Seret Scott's first full-length play. What sets it apart is its warmth and optimism. It is fully accepting of two diametrically opposed approaches toward advancing civil rights and self fulfillment. It sees the civil rights movement as a gift to all Americans. It credits the substantial contributions of non-African-Americans to the cause. And it values America as a land of opportunity. It does all of this while spotlighting the racial inequity which made the movement so necessary. Its generosity of spirit could readily put most others to shame given the sad legacy of discrimination in our society.
Billy Eugene Jones embodies the confident, smooth-talking, upwardly mobile young man determined to be treasured everywhere. His Bennie's transition from student to businessman is accomplished by donning a suit jacket over his sweater. Even when angry and hurt at JoJo for abandoning him for her causes, Jones retains his cultivated composure.
April Yvette Thompson has to show greater emotional range as her fortune and spirits fluctuate. While her JoJo is never fragile, Thompson conveys her hopes and fears and enthusiasms in an open and direct manner which pulls us in toward her.
The set by Ryan Scott is divided down the middle into two halves. Stage right is a platform with a desk, and stage left is essentially open space with a brown backdrop. Director Regge Life has Jones (Bennie) play his scenes in the room-like area stage right befitting his more circumspect world, while he has the world-ranging JoJo play most of her scenes on the open side of the stage.
The play's title Second Line refers to the dancing and singing spectators who join the procession of musicians returning from a New Orleans jazz funeral.
Second Line continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m. / Some Sat. 2 p.m.) through October 29, 2006 at the Passage Company Theatre at the Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton, NJ 08605. Box Office: 609-392-0766/ online: www.passagetheatre.org/.
Second Line By Seret Scott; Directed By Regge