That endangered West End species, the Important Play, returns with a vengeance in “Taking Sides,” Ronald Harwood’s slice of dramatic “faction” about the putative Nazi allegiances of Wilhelm Furtwangler, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich.
Some will undoubtedly cheer the re-emergence of the big themes and showy star parts on which the West End was thought to have reneged in recent months, alongside the sort of quasi-historical showdown in which Peter Shaffer once specialized. But others may be put off by authorial bombast masquerading as dramatic meat: Much of “Taking Sides,” and at least one of its star performances , is so much pure ham.
The situation, certainly, is a juicy one: In a rubble-strewn section of post-WWII Berlin, nicely realized in Eileen Diss’ set, Furtwangler (Daniel Massey) faces off against an American major, Steve Arnold (Michael Pennington), to clear his name of collaborationist charges. Is art a mechanism of polities, or does it occupy a realm beyond it? Is music a force for humanity or, as Arnold argues, one of appeasement, in which Furtwangler’s talent only bolstered a Nazi regime he was presumably free to forsake — and never did?
The issues come thick and fast, but “Taking Sides” remains a closed book, despite director Harold Pinter’s valiant attempt to find the same dialectical spark in this debate that he unleashed so furiously two seasons ago with David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” Maj. Arnold is the problem, both as played and as written. An insurance assessor in civilian life, Arnold is the American Philistne writ large, embracing his current assignment like a bloodthirsty wolf feasting on fresh prey. (Aesthetically speaking, the play shows beauty being devoured by the beast.)
“Jesus Christ, are we going to nail him,” Arnold snarls, adding an act later: “I’m not interested in small fish; I’m after Moby Dick.” (Beethoven, meanwhile, is billed as “the old bastard.”) After a while all the Queeg-like gnashing of teeth suggests it is America on trial, not Furtwangler. The conductor may or may not have been a Nazi sympathizer, but at least he was an artist. Americans, the play suggests, are condemned by history to play the vulgarian, and Pennington’s montonous sneer cannot enrich such simplistic thinking. As for invoking the horrors at Belsen to explain his actions, that dramatic tactic merely seems cheap: The Holocaust is far too profound to become a button conveniently pushed in order to allow a play its climax.
Other characters enter the debate without complicating it. Suzanne Bertish (a Tony nominee in June for Broadway’s “The Moliere Comedies”) has a good, brief scene as a widow taking the stand on behalf of Furtwangler, who attempted to save her pianist husband before he went to Auschwitz. But both Arnold’s minions — secretary Emmi Straube (Geno Lechner) and German-born American Jewish lieutenant Wills (Christopher Simon) — are setups, especially Wills, and Simon looks genuinely embarrassed by the sanctimonious paeans he has to deliver to end act one.
What depth the evening possesses is found in a bravura performance from Massey rich emotional and physical detail. Hands forever flapping, eyes glowering, the actor is impressive from his first appearance, glimpsed through the rear of a room he must wait his turn to enter. (Waving away Herbert von Karajan’s conducting technique, Massey briefly recalls the singing conductor he played in the “Loveland” sequence of London’s last West End “Follies.”) By the end, he’s shaking his head in dismay at the open-and-shut case in which he has found himself, and an audience is likely to share his dismay. The sides in “Taking Sides” were taken long ago, and it is left to Massey to provide some surprise, as we discover that a veteran trouper of an actor can play — and remains — an artist.