In C.P. Taylor's Good, the new production that Burning Coal Theatre is billing as a "Holocaust drama with music," the good man in question is John Halder, a mild-mannered German professor who, despite his liberal sentiments, becomes involved with the campaign to exterminate Jews. Halder's initial distaste for the Nazi Party is gradually overcome by rationalizations and personal ambitions, and Good, which was first produced three decades ago, becomes an illustration of a line often attributed to Edmund Burke, the one about good men enabling evil by doing nothing.
The problem with the Ian Finley-directed production that opened last weekend is that there's no tension to Halder's gradual corruption. As the professor, Steven Roten carries the show. On stage the entire time, he alternates between addressing the audience and playing out short scenes that jump around in time and space. Roten is best when talking directly to the audience, hinting at his internal conflicts and rationalizing his compliance with the Nazis. But his disjointed interactions with his blind mother (Julie Oliver), his neurotic wife (Tamara Farias Kraus), his young mistress (a stiff Jessica Heironimus) and his best friend, a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice (Rob Jenkins), never feel like they add up to anything. Worse, Halder is rarely sympathetic. He comes off as a patsy easily won over by lust and ambition, so it's difficult to feel invested in his moral decline.
The set is minimalist, but a raised platform in the shape of a cross (reminiscent of a swastika?) stands in for a stage, and this compounds the difficulties. The actors seem so busy navigating the space—a step up here, a step down here—that the pacing between scenes is often thrown off, and too frequently the actors are left standing in place and talking at each other. Halder suffers from musical hallucinations; this is represented theatrically by an ensemble of musicians rushing on and off stage to play over Halder's conversations with other characters. But this device doesn't work in the tight confines of the Murphey School Auditorium. Every time the ensemble appears, the principals are virtually immobilized in one corner.
The second act of Good is stronger and better paced than the first (the lack of musical interludes in the latter probably helps), and it features convincing performances by Alex Smith and Matthew Hager. But when Halder's journey reaches its end, I felt little surprise or disappointment. Halder's lack of agency simply affirms that passive men who are good at doing nothing will continue to do just that. While the Holocaust may have been enabled by such hollow men, it takes more than a predictable parable about this monstrous reality to create a compelling character.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Can we talk?"