It can’t be easy writing a play about Nazis. Actors may love dressing up in smart Gestapo uniforms, but playwrights are handicapped because they are loath to bestow upon Nazis the same range of humanizing quirks available to other fictional characters. (Himmler had no inner child; who cares if Eichmann spoke a little Yiddish?) Hollywood’s and Broadway’s first impulses were propagandistic and simply characterized Nazis as “blond beasts,” to borrow Nietzsche’s phrase. Then, after Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book about the Eichmann trial, their banality was emphasized — until television somehow translated banality into sitcom with Hogan’s Heroes. The personalities portrayed in Michael Halperin’s new drama, All Steps Necessary, form a Who’s Who of Nuremberg; faced with the dilemma about characterization, however, the show amounts to little more than a costume piece.
The story takes place in 1938, shortly after the Kristallnacht pogrom against Germany’s Jews. Hermann Göring (Richard V. Licata) has called a meeting in his Berlin home to discuss the ramifications of the vandalism and bloodshed perpetrated against Jewish businesses and their owners. Two points emerge amid quibbling over the proper placement of Jews on trains, in hospital beds and in forests: that warring factions within the Reich argued over solutions to the Jewish Question, and that Nazi concern about Kristallnacht wasn’t so much over international opinion as it was about the costs to German insurance companies.
Göring and his government allies, Walther Funk (Ben Shields) and Ernst Wörmann (Tom Carroll), argue for a relatively benign policy: to strip Jews of their property but permit them to live within proscribed communities. Göring, who despises Kristallnacht’s architects, Joseph Goebbels (Michael Oberlander) and SS General Reinhard Heydrich (Larry Reinhardt-Meyer), accuses the two men of acting without Hitler’s knowledge. For their part, the more viscerally anti-Semitic Goebbels and Heydrich favor complete eradication, whispering of gassing Jews or shipping them to Madagascar.
Halperin’s play coerces us to favor one faction of Nazis against another — the ultimate lesser of two evils. Such a pick seems unsupportable, but it’s human nature to find characters who most closely resemble us, and Halperin plays this impulse like a billiard bank shot. We also derive an undeniable, ghoulish delight in seeing so many villains nibbling pastries on one stage.
But this, along with Valerie Laven-Cooper’s painstakingly authentic costumes, is as good as director Jim Ortlieb’s production gets. Halperin gives himself the latitude of fictionalizing history, but his characterizations tend to be single-note anyway. Romulus Linney’s play, 2: Göring at Nuremberg, suggested what roguish behavior the field marshal potentially offers storytellers. Here, however, Halperin merely gives us an overbearing cynic whose attempts at irony fall flat, especially as Licata plays him as a kind of roly-poly Simon Cowell. Reinhardt-Meyer’s Heydrich is similarly cardboard, even though Heydrich was the most feared man among the Nazis, let alone the Jews. (The actor is also somewhat older than his character, which is only important because part of this fanatic’s creepiness was his youth.) Goebbels may admit he’s a sex addict, but this fact doesn’t manifest itself anywhere — he certainly makes no moves on Hermann’s secretary, Fräu Grundtmann (Addie Daddio).
Then, also, Ortlieb’s actors don’t seem to know what to do with their hands once they’re gathered in Göring’s drawing room. Even more uncomfortable, perhaps, is Halperin’s coda, which has a sentry (Ethan Wilde) run down some of the principals’ fates, just in case we hadn’t heard. Unlike Robert Shaw’s Eichmann-inspired The Man in the Glass Booth or Ronald Harwood’s drama about Wilhelm Furtwängler, Taking Sides, All Steps Necessary isn’t a play concerned with culpability or self-rationalizations. In the end, it’s a story about colleagues who agree to disagree, then go home — which may well be evil at its most banal.
ALL STEPS NECESSARY | By MICHAEL HALPERIN | Inkwell Theater at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd. | Through June 4 | (866) 811-4111