British playwright C.P. Taylor has distilled the seduction of the great majority of “good” German people by the Nazis during the years 1933 to 1938 through the fictional story of John Halder (Steve O’Connor), a righteous and respected academic who allows the debilitating chaos in his own life to be assuaged by the overwhelming passion and success of the “new order.” Director Norman Cohen wisely takes a lighthearted, cabaretlike approach to the work, emphasizing Taylor’s quirky use of humor and music to counterbalance the reality of Halder’s inevitable descent into hell.
Moving through and around the onstage, three-piece band as if they were at a party, the excellent 10-member ensemble never leaves the ample Theatre West stage as each character either observes or participates in whatever scene is at hand. This helps immensely to create an active flow to Taylor’s wordy and often redundant text.
It is 1933. University professor Halder (performed with likable restraint by O’Connor) is esteemed by all but is being emotionally crushed between the unrelenting needs of his slovenly, manic-depressive wife Helen (Ursula Martin) and his blind, mentally deteriorating mother (Margaret Muse). His only refuge is his friendship with Jewish psychiatrist Maurice, played with rumpled charm by Ivan Cury. It is to Maurice he confides a mental aberration that increasingly overcomes him, wherein he hears a band playing, setting to music many of the scenes of his life (not unlike the Steve Martin character in the film “Pennies From Heaven”).
Complimented and wooed by a series of charming, intelligent National Socialist officials, Halder inevitably finds himself rationalizing the growing anti-Semitism, participating in the book burnings, explaining the necessity of the “Kristallnacht” destruction of Jewish businesses and places of worship, refusing to help Maurice and his family escape to Switzerland, drafting the proposal for the euthanasia of the elderly and the deformed, and finally becoming an aide to Adolph Eichmann and an architect of the “final solution.” It is inside the gates of the newly constructed Auschwitz camp in 1938 that Halder once more hears a band playing through his life, only this time the band is real.
As Anne, the former university student who becomes Halder’s “trophy” mistress, Elizabeth DuVall gives a haunting portrayal of a beautiful, totally devoted lover who is completely oblivious to anything happening around them other than their relationship and the devotion of their close friends. Equally memorable is Martin’s Helen, a dazed soul who has had the ability to cope completely drained from her being.
Lending solid support are Jim Beaver (Major), David Brandt (Doctor) Bruce Liberty (Bouller/Eichmann) and Andrew Parks (Hitler/Bok) as the soothing, smooth-talking Nazis who guide Halder into the Holocaust.
The musical offerings serve more as emotional accents to the plot rather than actual performances, although Arden Teresa Lewis is hilarious as a nurse who launches into a rip-roaring spoof of Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling In Love Again.” Also worth noting is the sight of Parks’ Hitler warbling a respectable rendition of Kurt Weill’s “September Song.”