I wish I had a stronger liking for Taking Sides, Ronald Harwood's fervid re-imagining of a singular denazification inquiry, because its central concern — that sticky Socratic debate over relative importance — art or society? — is perennial and nearly always worth engaging. But the same flaws that ultimately sank The Dresser, Harwood's previous success d'estime, take the steam out of this one: overwriting, and a kind of dramatic triteness.
As presented in a tandem mounting by Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions, Taking Sides (Nov. 18-21 and Dec. 2-5 and 9-11 in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) makes of virtue of not doing so — or at least, of not making an ultimate judgment either for or against the possible anti-Semitism and Nazi Party affiliation of the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. This in itself is admirable, but Harwood's dramaturgy is of the chestnut variety. A great playwright, of course, could take this moribund setup (two acts, one set, trial if not by jury then by one-man tribunal) and make something wholly other from it. Alas, the quality of Harwood's writing lacks the eloquence needed to lift his play into that sort of stratosphere. It's consistently interesting, occasionally quite funny, but ultimately neither searing, nor revelatory — not enough enough.
In a makeshift office in bombed-out Berlin, Major Steve Arnold (John Murphy) sifts through evidence, circumstance, dubious testimony, and his own bitter conviction to nail Furtwängler (Jordan Smith) for the war-time activity the old legend denies. Once you get the measure of the play's long preamble, you know just what to expect: firebrand accuser and autocratic accused; vulgar American passion facing defiant German stoicism; activist vs. enigma. The only annealing factor is the growing uncertainty of Arnold's staff concerning Furtwängler's guilt. Ultimately, Arnold himself echoes the totalitarian single-mindedness he associates with his quarry, but it seems to me a point made rather too late and too timidly.
Rob Hamilton's set is a small marvel of concision, representing both the ruined building with its visible wall-slats and fallen plaster, cunningly cut with ascending angles and the world outside, with piles of rubble butting up against the playing area a potent reminder of the devastation to which Hitler consigned Berlin. The shabby furnishings — rusting steel carts and tables, cumbersome woodstove, boxed phonograph, and a chair that looks as though it's had the stuffing quite literally knocked out of it — are exactly right. Only some anachronistic record albums (they would have been 78s in 1946) detract from Hamilton's verisimilitude.
The supporting cast is variable. As Arnold's aide-de-camp, Allan Maule is a bit wan while Rick Lonon occasionally overdoes it as a nervous mediocrity. As Arnold's German secretary Katja Hill seems exactly right — efficient, yet unaccountably troubled — until the moment of her big disclosure, which comes across less a bombshell than a firecracker. As always, Sarah Kocz (here playing the widow of a murdered Jewish pianist) brings her particular brand of unassailable intensity to the smallest of the play's five roles.
As the antagonists, two old local hands give performances remarkable in their opposition: Smith's dignified, soft-spoken courtliness against Murphy's almost maniacal volatility. The contrast is deliberate, of course, both in Harwood's script and in the thoughtful direction of Matthew Spangler and Jill Greeson. It's a clichéd set-up, alleviated only by the playwright's refusal either to condemn Furtwängler for his seeming artistic hubris or to let him completely off the humanist hook.
An either/or approach to questions of art is always suspect, if only because the greatest art ennobles and celebrates the highest of human aspirations. This, of course, is Furtwängler's contention. On the other hand, as Arnold himself might ask, Is even the greatest symphony worth six million dead — or even a single life? Still, the various revelations that occur like clockwork near the end of the play neither illuminate the argument nor carry all that much power of their own.
I was reminded, watching this play, of a remark made by the great Billy Wilder during his stint at cultural denazification for the U.S. government following the surrender of Berlin. Told that a certain German actor known as much for his outspoken Nazi loyalty as for his playing of Jesus had petitioned to perform the Oberammergau Passion play again, Wilder (who lost most of his family to the Holocaust) snapped back: "Only if they use real nails."
That's a better — and bitterer — joke than anything Harwood comes up with.
Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions present Taking Sides Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 2-4 and 9-11, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5, at 2 p.m. in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12 ($5 students and $10 seniors and UNC faculty and staff), except $5 Dec. 2. 919/969-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/.