"One may smile, and smile, and be a villain." So says the prescient prince in Hamlet, who then adds, "At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark." In C.P. Taylor's internationally acclaimed 1981 drama Good, on view through October 21 at St. Louis Actors Studio, smiling villainy was much the norm in 1930s Germany as well. Although movies and plays about World War II often tend to depict Nazis and Gestapo agents as heartless monsters, the fanciful Germany Taylor imagines was populated with essentially "good" people who were swept down a twisted trail they did not fully comprehend. Had Good been written by a German, it probably would be written off as mawkishly defensive. But Taylor was a Scot, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents; his background tinges the evening with an acrid irony.
The action, which plays out between 1933 and 1942, is mostly set in Frankfurt, where the music-loving John Halder lives a conventional life as a German literature professor. The National Socialists admire a novel John has written, in which he rationally defends mercy killing. From this simple beginning, John is drawn ever deeper into the miasma of Hitler's Germany, until eventually he becomes the architect of the Final Solution. John's naiveté knows no bounds — he is able to rationalize a Jewish pogrom as "a humane operation," and he's convinced that Hitler's popularity is a temporary aberration. B. Weller's portrayal of this muddled protagonist is so effectively spineless, the actor almost succeeds in making vagueness a virtue.
John's father also was an author. In describing one of the senior Halder's weighty tomes, a Nazi officer tells John, "Such a deep book as that, I just get the gist of it." Perhaps we are supposed to find a parallel between that book and Germany's descent into barbarism: Otherwise-decent people like John could only get the gist of the enormity of what was occurring. How much more pleasant it was for John to retreat into the easy melodies of popular music. (Along with the rest of the cast, which never leaves the stage, Tim Hearn spends the evening at the keyboard playing everything from Beethoven to Sigmund Romberg.) Perhaps it's not surprising that John is so confused. As portrayed here, Adolf Hitler himself (Ben Ritchie) might be mistaken for Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator.
Nothing about Good is strictly literal. Teresa Doggett gives a wrenching performance as John's infirm mother, who is sinking into dementia. Surely the mother's blindness represents the blindness of the German populace in the 1930s. April Strelinger's self-indulgent wife, who is content to live amid clutter and debris, personifies the defeatism of Germany after World War I. As John's best friend, who happens to be Jewish, Larry Dell emerges as the play's anguished, stricken conscience. John's delightful young mistress Anne, played with insidious charm by Rachel Fenton, is the evening's most malicious character. Fenton morphs from demure to demented with the batting of an eyelash.
So there's much to chew on here, much to ponder. Playwright Taylor, who died at age 52 in 1981, the same year Good premiered, did not live long enough to see his play staged around the world and selected by England's National Theatre as one of the 100 best plays of the 20th century. As presented here under the direction of Milt Zoth, Good is a slow starter, and the narrow confines of the Gaslight Theater playing space cannot realize the script's full potential. Nevertheless, by the time this challenging Actors Studio production reaches its harrowing conclusion, you will have shared an experience that won't be easily shaken off.