Playwright and novelist David Wiltse is defeated by his daunting subject — the Holocaust — in his new play “The Good German.” Although there is much fact (probably too much) woven into the play, neither its basic situation nor its characters have the ring of theatrical truth. The play is more a stilted tract than a living piece of theater.
Wiltse was once stationed in Stuttgart with the U.S. Army, and has also drawn upon “extensive reading” for his play, which is making its world preem at the Westport Country Playhouse. That may be part of the problem, for he has seemingly thrown all of his research into the writing, and subsequently been unable to sort it all out.
Play, which begins in the early days of World War II, takes place in the Southwest German home of Karl and Gretel Vogel. Act one opens with Gretel (Kathleen McNenny) bringing Wilhelm Braun (Victor Slezak) to stay in her home without telling her husband (Casey Biggs) in advance. She introduces Braun as a cousin. He is in fact unrelated to her, a Jewish publisher who is seeking refuge after having lost his wife, child, home and identification papers in an arson fire.
Vogel, a professor and a blunt intellectual bully, is far from happy about giving Braun refuge, but acquiesces to his wife’s pleading. Both he and close family friend Siemi Tauber (Boyd Gaines) are anti-semitic, although they try to rationalize their bigotry in all sorts of slippery ways. They also both profess to loathe Hitler, Tauber calling him an “egomaniacal little runt,” even as Tauber works as a desk clerk in the Nazi war machine.
The play aims to indict the intelligent, well-educated Germans went along with the Nazis unresistingly. Tauber and Vogel also repeatedly raise the question of why the Jews are so “sheeplike” in the face of persecution. But all three of the male characters seem to switch sides regularly in their beliefs and arguments. Human behavior is a mass of inconsistencies of course, but in Wiltse’s hands such inconsistencies are not theatrical virtues.
Nor is his dramaturgy convincing. It is a major misstep to have Gretel killed early on, for instance, since Gretel is a potentially interesting character and McNenny’s performance is the production’s most persuasive.
After Gretel’s death, Braun continues to live with her husband, despite his antagonism, as his servant and cook. After a violent fight, Vogel forces Braun out of the house, but when he creeps back in Vogel does nothing to prevent him. Act two begins on a ludicrously false note with a comic scene that seems to come straight from “The Odd Couple,” with Braun baking cookies for a complaining Vogel. The introduction of a Christmas tree is equally silly.
Eventually, Tauber progresses from desk clerk to Nazi brute, shooting homosexuals and becoming a major overseeing the transportation of Jews to “work camps.” In a wild diatribe against Jews, Tauber attempts to warn Vogel and Braun that he and others know that Braun is Jewish and that Vogel has been sheltering him. The play comes to an abrupt conclusion when Tauber produces a gun.
But it’s not just the conclusion that rings false: The entire play is unsatisfactory, an exercise in overreaching foolhardiness. “The Good German” has neither the intellectual heft nor the dramatic skillfulness to illuminate the morass of moral dilemmas at its heart.
James Naughton’s production is marked by acceptably professional acting, although there’s a prevailing one-dimensional quality about much of it. Hugh Landwehr’s living room setting is aptly dark and Germanic, complete with period fringed lampshades, overstuffed velvet armchairs and sliding pocket doors.