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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse SommerTaking Sides, like another recent British import, Skylight, introduces American audiences to a gifted actor who's not really well known on these shores. Edmund Massey's portrayal of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler should set the record straight about his impressive talents as an interpreter of a complex individual. Furtwängler was investigated as a Nazi sympathizer because he stayed at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the war, As for his record Ronald Harwood's script leaves it up to the audience to either take sides, or straddle the touchy question relating to the artist's role vis-à-vis political reigns of terror.
Massey's Furtwängler is a man impatiently resigned to the interrogation to which he is being subjected, unshaken in his conviction that he remained in Germany not out of sympathy for the Nazi cause, but as the stoker of the cultural flame that represented that which was best about his country. As he used his hands and facial expressions to elicit his well-known and powerful interpretations of Beethoven and Wagner, he now uses them to show his exasperation despair and passionate rationalizations--He didn't salute Hitler, he raised his baton; he didn't play on the date of his birthday celebration, but on the night before; he didn't stay because he was cozy with the Nazis but to give comfort-via-music to his countrymen. It is a portrait with many shades.
The investigator who locks horns with Furtwängler on the stage of the Brooks Atkinson is the epitome of the culturally impoverished middle-American. Ed Harris, after a somewhat slow start warms up to the part of the erstwhile insurance adjuster enraged by the atrocities he has recently witnessed. He can't or won't differentiate between a "band leader" and a great conductor. He insists that if you shake the devil's hand it doesn't matter that you do so lightly and motivated by the lofty aim of preserving a country's cultural heritage. This one-track, "let's nail him" determination keeps Harris the concertmaster to Massey's maestro.
While Massey and Harris dominate the proceedings, the play's moral questions are dramatically humanized by four subsidiary characters--a secretary, (Elizabeth Marvel), who owes her job to the fact that her father was involved in the plot to overthrow Hitler; the Major's young Lieutenant, (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more forgiving than his boss even though his parents were killed in the Holocaust; an opportunistic "typical" German, (Norbert Weisser), who became a second violinist in the orchestra by virtue of its Jewish members' exodus; and the widow of a Jewish musician, (Ann Dowd), who's grateful to Furtwängler for helping her husband to escape to Paris roles . The most outstanding performance of this quartet is given by Norbert Weisser. Elizabeth Marvel's unspoken gestures are more telling than her words. Dowd's young widow is somewhat too overwrought and Michael Stuhlbarg lacks the intensity he brought to the role of the young pianist in the Jewish Rep production of Old Wicked Songs. Yet it was his part that made me wonder what kind of a play we would have had if the Major had not been quite as tuned out to music's soothing powers. True, the Major as written by Harwood, is shrewd enough to ask his secretary to put on Bruckner's Requiem as proof of Furtwängler's role as Hitler's official musical mourner, as he was the cultural shield behind which the Nazis conducted their horrendous deeds. But a less stereotypical "ugly American" could have used Furtwängler's own beloved Beethoven and Wagner to show that great artists are not above politics. Wagner was openly political in his espousal of German superiority and anti-semitism--a great artist, yes, but a failed human being. Beethoven, who originally dedicated the Fifth Symphony which opens and closes the play to Napoleon, changed his dedication when he saw what Napoleon became. He was a great artist who did take sides.
David Jenkins' set clearly and tellingly evokes the grim, bombed out post-war Berlin at the time this investigation took place. Director David Jones keeps everything moving along so that the audience never feels restless.
In the final analysis Taking Sides is above all else, Daniel Massey's, triumph. That much said, however, the play in spite of its flaws, or maybe because of them, offers a total experience that is satisfying because it fully engages its audience leaving them with food for thought and discussion that should extend well beyond the evening's proceedings. Furthermore, with audiences that include people like a woman sitting near me who seemed to know little or nothing about the "banality of evil" that dominated the Nazi reign of terror, the issue of the fine line between good and evil, naiveté nd conciliation is never too much done to re-examine.