The Actors Theatre looks for moral clarity by Taking Sides 

There's a trick with "moral clarity" — by which I mean not some hard-worn sense of justice but that defiant, reductive, good-and-evil, cops-and-robbers, cowboys-and-Indians, norms-and-elitists strain of American know-nothingism. It's that moral clarity too often makes enemies out of more than just the sons of bitches you're fighting against. It can also set you against anyone who doesn't share your exact ideals or anyone resembling those you oppose. You're either with us, the thinking goes, or you're for them.

Just ask your local Baathist. Or consider Glenn Beck, that KMBZ 980 syndicated morning asshole, who can't go 10 minutes without comparing Obama to Hitler.

So pervasive is truth these days that there's not much surprise in seeing Mark Robbins go full-on Bill O'Reilly in Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides. The show again finds the Actors Theatre of Kansas City gambling that, even in the summertime, oxygen can still reach theatergoers' brains — something that turns out to be true. Like the excellent Translations, which runs in repertory with Taking Sides through the end of the month, this is well-staged, well-acted theater, rich in thematic resonance. It's an engaging night out, even if the script never builds to as searing a climax as you might hope.

Written a decade ago, Taking Sides is set in the aftermath of World War II. But it's timely enough to feel like the kind of beefy news analysis found in the Sunday paper: It never takes a position, but with thoroughness and clarity, it examines what we already know.

Robbins plays Maj. Steve Arnold, the kind of regular guy who's happiest when he's telling you what a regular guy he is. Proud of his cultural illiteracy and binary thinking, Maj. Arnold has been tasked with investigating German citizens to determine just who supported the Reich. He's vulgar and provincial, and he insists that these traits make him more honest than everyone around him. He's suspicious of most Germans, complaining that "a million of these people came out to welcome Adolf on the day he entered the city" but that everyone he interrogates claims "they were all at home hiding Jews in the attic."

His big target is the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Gary Holcombe), who led the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the era of National Socialism. Furtwängler never publicly supported Hitler and is reputed to have helped Jews escape the country, but Arnold is convinced that the conductor must have struck a deal with the regime to have kept his position.

Most of the play pits Arnold against Furtwängler in an actorly showdown. Under director Tom Mardikes, each stage of these lengthy confrontations bristles with greater urgency than the last. Holcombe establishes Furtwängler as a man of power brought low. He caves his body in on itself, and he speaks with a haughtiness that seems like long habit but also with a hesitation that seems new. He defends himself with grand talk of having hoped to safeguard the tradition of German music through his country's darkest years, but bringing such a thing up with Arnold is like telling Lou Dobbs about the fantastic taquerias on Minnesota Avenue — it gets you nowhere.

Robbins plays Arnold as self-consciously relaxed, a man who looks easy-going even as he's working out how far he'll have to go to "nail" an interrogation subject. It's a genuinely revealing performance that gets at the ugly truth of much American thinking: the self-proclaimed "ordinary" too often grant themselves moral authority over their fellows.

More than usual for even the best Kansas City plays, the details here feel right. When records play or telephones ring, the sounds actually come from the vicinity of the devices. All of the action transpires within Arnold's office, but Jason Coale's clever set affords us a view of the gray, crumbled Berlin outside it. German characters look and sound German, especially Michael Linsley Rapport, whose plea-bargaining violinist boils pink in his own skin.

Nathan Darrow and Vanessa Severo acquit themselves well in minor parts that require major-role commitment. Both are onstage for most of the show, serving as emotional barometers. Darrow plays a U.S. lieutenant sympathetic to Furtwängler and serves as something like an audience surrogate. Over the three acts, his distaste for Arnold's methods escalates right along with ours. The powerful Severo — who was an inventive marvel a couple of weeks back in Heidi Stubblefield's clown ballet, The Coppelia Project — is mostly restrained in the role of Arnold's German secretary, a devotee of Furtwängler's.

I wish that Harwood had pushed his ideas further and more naturally. I wish that his Germans spent more time fighting for their lives and less time articulating big themes. I wish that the dangers of Arnold's good-and-evil thought process could be exposed to many more people. Mostly, though, I wish that our theaters would always approach the level that the Actors Theatre achieves in the offest of off-seasons.

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