Taking Sides

"Taking Sides," Ronald Harwood's diagrammatic drama about German conductor (and accused Nazi sympathizer) Wilhelm Furtwangler, asks audiences to do as the title suggests by deciding whether art and politics can, as the maestro insisted , be kept separate.

“Taking Sides,” Ronald Harwood’s diagrammatic drama about German conductor (and accused Nazi sympathizer) Wilhelm Furtwangler, asks audiences to do as the title suggests by deciding whether art and politics can, as the maestro insisted , be kept separate. Was Furtwangler, as one devotee maintains in the play, “a symbol to the entire world of all that is great in culture and music,” or a Nazi pawn whose concerts put a high-toned gloss on a murderous regime?

Both sides are presented with force if not conviction under David Jones’ direction, force wins out although the play’s none too subtle (and anti-American) sympathies with the conductor undermine much of the inherent drama; the “side” is chosen for us. As with the similarly themed “Old Wicked Songs” currently running Off Broadway, Harwood’s play purports to address the complexity and nuance of art but does so with a hamfistedness that robs the endeavor of everything but good intentions.

At worst, the play suggests, Furtwangler, who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic during the Nazi years and was, indeed, a Hitler favorite, was a naive dupe whose notions about the supremacy of art were merely ill-conceived. More than two hours of debate the play is structured as a series of military inquisitions in the American-occupied zone of Berlin in 1946 seems to result in little more than Harwood’s assertion that Furtwangler meant no harm. If that description is a simplification, it’s one the author must share in. Furtwangler, who conducted on the eve of the Nuremberg rally, meant no harm? The obvious response is, So what? Doesn’t he remain accountable?

Ironically, Harwood’s one-sidedness (emphasized by the direction) might be his undoing. One can’t help but devise mental arguments in opposition to Harwood’s thesis, particularly since the American mouthpiece of the play a crude Army major played by Ed Harris amounts to little more than a stick figure incapable of bearing the weight of what should be a legitimate viewpoint. The detriment isn’t merely philosophical, but theatrical as well.

Harris plays Major Steve Arnold, an Army investigator out to prove that Furtwangler (Daniel Massey, reprising his acclaimed West End performance) was in cahoots with the Hitler regime. Chosen for his anti-intellectual resistance to anything cultural (he repeatedly refers to the conductor as a “bandleader”), Arnold is haunted by the horrors he witnessed during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. He waves aside such notions as “justice” and “facts,” telling a young assistant, “I’m interested in nailing the bastard.”

The bastard, we’re told often, is the greatest conductor in the world, a genius compared to whom Toscanini is merely a “metronome.” Harwood sets the stage for Furtwangler’s late act one arrival by first presenting two other interrogations. Arnold questions a nervous second violinist who repeats, as 28 others did before him, a memorized testimony of loyalty to his conductor. Next we’re shown a distraught, emotionally wrecked young woman whose pianist husband was exterminated, despite Furtwangler’s efforts to smuggle the young man out of the country (as he did many Jewish musicians). “You want to burn him at the stake!” the widow screams in defense of Furtwangler.

That the conductor required the pianist to audition (apparently for survival) is mentioned only in passing, one of the more astounding lapses in the play’s moral investigations. The issue is briefly resurrected by the Army interrogator, who charges that the conductor’s complaints were with the decline of musical standards under the Nazi regime rather than “racial policies,” but the argument is tossed about with so many red herrings Furtwangler’s sexual proclivities, his anti-Semitism, his rivalries with other conductors that legitimate issues lose their power.

Furtwangler’s character (was he or wasn’t he a Nazi?) dominates the interrogator’s approach, but it should not dominate the play’s: Harwood expends so much energy questioning, then establishing, that the conductor believes what he says that the moral veracity of that belief gets short shrift. Better to have conceded early on what Harwood clearly trusts: that, yes, Furtwangler did believe that “human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played.” The more intriguing question remains, does that excuse him for playing?

In an odd way, Massey’s strong (although at times distractingly quirky) performance as Furtwangler also muddies the play. He so clearly outweighs the opposition that the audience has little choice as to which side to take. His extravagant gestures he seems to “conduct” his conversation and idiosyncratic movement (watch him maneuver into a chair) are both fascinating and slightly repellent. Either way, you can’t take your eyes off him. Harris, who plays the Army major at an unrelieved angry pitch, doesn’t stand a chance.

Then again, that isn’t entirely Harris’ fault. Harwood sends him into battle with precious little ammunition. Even the motives of the character are questioned: While we’re offered an emotional appeal on behalf of the Holocaust’s victims, we’re also led to believe that the Army officer is acting on orders from some mysterious authority out to get Furtwangler. American Jews? Secret government factions? Harwood can’t, or rather won’t, say, making his snide insinuations that the Army investigators employ Nazi tactics all the more egregious: The major’s final lines involve controlling the American press specifically, the New York Times that recall earlier comments made in the play against the Hitler regime.

And Harwood can’t help stacking the deck even further. Two secondary characters a shy German secretary and the young American lieutenant (American by naturalization, not birth, the playwright makes clear) are placed decidedly on the conductor’s side. “Only tyrannies understand the power of art,” says the lieutenant in one of the play’s didacticisms, this after comparing Furtwangler to a fallen priest.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays the lieutenant in as restrained a manner as possible given the director’s penchant for the hysterical. One loud outburst after another blunts the device’s impact, and the entire production feels overwrought (including David Jenkins’ set, which puts the interior of an Army office amid Berlin’s bombed-out, rubble-strewn exterior). We’re left with the image of Furtwangler surveying the damage, and can only imagine how powerful the scene might have been had the playwright allowed that his conductor was at least partly responsible.

Taking Sides

Brooks Atkinson Theater; 1,109 seats; $45 top

  • Production: An Alexander H. Cohen, Max Cooper and Duncan C. Weldon presentation of a play in two acts by Ronald Harwood. Directed by David Jones.
  • Crew: Set, David Jenkins; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Howell Binkley; casting, Meg Simon, Janet Foster; production stage manager, Bob Borod; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; press, David Rothenberg; co-producer, Hildy Parks; general management, Marvin A. Krauss. Opened Oct. 17, 1996, at the . Reviewed Oct. 15. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.
  • Cast: <B>Cast:</B> Ed Harris (Major Steve Arnold), Elizabeth Marvel (Emmi Straube), Michael Stuhlbarg (Lieut. David Wills), Norbert Weisser (Helmuth Rode), Ann Dowd (Tamara Sachs), Daniel Massey (Wilhelm Furtwangler).
  • Music By: