Is "Good" good? Not particularly, though what's amazing about Michael Grandage's revival of C.P. Taylor's 1981 play is that so potentially inflammatory a piece of writing should seem so defanged. At the Aldwych in 1982, and then on Broadway, where its title provoked smiles as the next-door neighbor to David Hare's "Plenty," Taylor's tendentious thesis stirred as much debate as Alan Howard's alternately fearsome and tic-laden star turn. The first London engagement of "Good" since then is likely to do no such thing: For all the obvious provocations of the text, the evening is as bland and inoffensive as the tentative performance of its star, Charles Dance. Though physically perfect for the role, Dance isn't yet inflecting it emotionally, and as numerous line fluffs on opening night made clear, he's still struggling to grab hold of a dream play that --- crucially --- devolves into the stuff of nightmare.

Is “Good” good? Not particularly, though what’s amazing about Michael Grandage’s revival of C.P. Taylor’s 1981 play is that so potentially inflammatory a piece of writing should seem so defanged. At the Aldwych in 1982, and then on Broadway, where its title provoked smiles as the next-door neighbor to David Hare’s “Plenty,” Taylor’s tendentious thesis stirred as much debate as Alan Howard’s alternately fearsome and tic-laden star turn. The first London engagement of “Good” since then is likely to do no such thing: For all the obvious provocations of the text, the evening is as bland and inoffensive as the tentative performance of its star, Charles Dance. Though physically perfect for the role, Dance isn’t yet inflecting it emotionally, and as numerous line fluffs on opening night made clear, he’s still struggling to grab hold of a dream play that — crucially — devolves into the stuff of nightmare.

One could argue that the time for the play is now, with Europe hovering on the brink of war and Kosovo reminding us nightly that the atrocities of the Third Reich live on in differing ways today. At the same time, however, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that — even in a far more astringent production — Taylor isn’t telling us anything about one “good” man’s slide into collusion with evil that countless other accounts of moral disintegration (or, perhaps more accurately, blankness) haven’t already revealed. And though the prevailing conceit of a German professor plagued by an omnipresent band in his head allows for a chilling finish when that band is shockingly made real, on this occasion, at least, “Good” doesn’t really explore the banality of evil; it simply seems banal.

Such a response is barely acceptable, given the issues under scrutiny here: the apparent passivity and self-absorption that can allow an ostensibly decent, benign individual (or, of course, a society) to fall sway to the worst reaches of human behavior. And while one applauds Dance’s desire not to signal in advance the conversion of Halder, university scholar whose writings on behalf of euthanasia find a receptive audience among the Nazis who then coopt him, the actor is so limply genial that the expected frisson never arrives.

Surely we’re meant to be appalled by his behavior toward his doddering mother (Faith Brook, in an unaffecting and stagey performance) and his Jewish chum Maurice (Ian Gelder, barely registering in a role played rendingly in the first Royal Shakespeare Co. production by Joe Melia). But even as the self-rationalizations mount — Halder insists that he loves Jews and only wishes they weren’t such a problem to everybody — the emotional affect does not, and one begins resisting Taylor’s attempts to shock an audience to attention with multiple ironies that don’t so much illuminate the formation of an SS officer as merely seem glib.

“Where will you get good Jewish cheesecake when you’ve locked up all the Jews?” asks Maurice, who wants his friend to provide exit visas to Switzerland. But embarked on an affair with young acolyte Anne (Emilia Fox), Halder has little time for larger worries, beyond arguing that “excesses are bound to happen” insofar as Hitler’s regime is still young.

And if Proust and Freud are seen to have no place in the Germany of the ’30s, the literary-minded Halder can clearly deflect such portents of doom, just as he turns an increasingly deaf ear to the disintegration of his wife (Jessica Turner , in the evening’s lone moving performance). In the end, dressed in the commandant gear that Dance’s tall frame and patrician look easily inhabit, Halder hears only the ceaseless music of the band. What he can’t listen out for is the ghastly reason why their sounds at last seem real — because the players now are inmates at Auschwitz.

If one yearns for a better cast almost across the board, that’s in part because the physical production is so expert. As he showed several seasons ago with his gently abstracted set for Jon Marans’ “Old Wicked Songs,” Christoper Oram is quietly becoming one of the country’s top designers, and his high-walled backdrop here — adorned with violins like some sort of macabre parody of Magritte — makes something expressive out of the grisly universe that Halder ends up accommodating, in every sense of the word. Hartley T.A. Kemp’s fierce lighting, too, sounds its own alarms for a genocidal impulse that persists today and that this “Good” — in what remains the real shock of the evening — is far too placid to make fully felt.

Good

(DRAMA REVIVAL; DONMAR WAREHOUSE; 251 SEATS; $:22 ($ 36) TOP)

Production

LONDON A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by C. P. Taylor. Directed by Michael Grandage. Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram.

Crew

Lighting, Hartley T.A. Kemp; musical supervisor, Michael Haslam; sound, John A. Leonard. Opened, reviewed March 23, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

With

Halder ..... Charles Dance Mother ..... Faith Brook Maurice ..... Ian Gelder Helen ..... Jessica Turner Anne ..... Emilia Fox Hitler/Eichmann ..... John Ramm
With: Eva Marie Bryer, Peter Moreton, Cymon Allen, Benedict Taylor.
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