At the center of Taking Sides is a rube, a crass insurance salesman to be exact. A guy who doesn't know Toscanini from teriyaki. A man who sleeps through Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, "Because Beethoven's Fifth Symphony bores me shitless," he explains to his secretary. Bored or just a bore, this man -- Maj. Steve Arnold -- will sit in judgment over another man, one of the world's great orchestra conductors. Is this fair?

Fairness is one key aspect of Ronald Harwood's 1995 play, which won the Olivier Prize for Best Drama in Britain during the 1995-96 season and recently came ashore at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. It's also about Nazism, fascism, genius, moral responsibility, and the complicated relationship between art and politics. Set in the American zone of occupied Berlin in 1946, the play is a fictional recreation of the De-Nazification Tribunal hearings surrounding Wilhelm Furtwangler, the long-time musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Like hundreds of Germans after the war, Furtwangler's past was investigated to determine whether or not he had been a Nazi and thus should be punished. The play unfolds with a series of conversations between the investigating officer -- the major -- and a handful of Germans who testify for the tribunal, as well as through several pithy exchanges with the conductor himself.

Was Furtwangler a firm believer in the Third Reich? Or did he use the shield of his official position to save countless numbers of Jews? The real Furtwangler was exonerated by the tribunal, but, as Harwood's introduction to his script puts it, the conductor "was never able to cleanse himself entirely of the Nazi stench that still clings to his memory."

Because there is not enough evidence to pronounce him entirely a hero or villain, Furtwangler embodies the debate about what artists -- in Nazi Germany or in Cuba or Yugoslavia today -- owe society. Should they take sides, the play asks, or do art and artists exist outside politics? Harwood, who also wrote The Dresser (the basis for the 1983 film starring Albert Finney), has fastened onto a compelling historical figure to crystallize these questions, but he hasn't constructed a drama that allows an intelligent argument to emerge. Law & Order, the TV show that presents a new courtroom drama each week, excels because it works against the formula rather than indulging it. Unfortunately Harwood's piece does not.

At its worst Taking Sides wants to reduce Furtwangler's life to a series of events that can be evaluated as "evidence." Furtwängler stayed in the country and watched his career flourish as he became Hitler's favorite conductor, unlike many of his contemporaries, including musicians Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, who fled Germany. By remaining at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic, some say, he allowed the Reich to use him as a mouthpiece for Nazi propaganda. Furtwangler did, after all, conduct the powerful martial music for the notorious Nuremberg Nazi rally. (The moment was captured forever in the work of Leni Riefenstahl, a brilliant filmmaker who happily allowed herself to be used by the Nazis.)

Furtwangler's supporters in the play point out that, unlike his rival Herbert von Karajan, he was not a card-carrying party member. Furthermore, he used his influence and power to secure jobs for Jewish musicians and exit visas for those he couldn't employ. They say he made the best of a bad situation.

One thing is clear: Furtwangler was a complex individual whose behavior defied categorization. On the one hand, he refused to play officially sanctioned Third Reich music for the simple reason that he didn't like most of it. On the other hand, he also shunned Jewish musicians on the Nazi blacklist -- Mahler, Schoenberg, and Weill, to name a few. In Taking Sides Furtwangler says his motive to stay in Germany was to preserve German artistic tradition against the barbarians who had come to power. A lofty aspiration, perhaps, but his behavior was also self-serving.

To get at the multilayers of the man, Furtwangler is pitted against Steve Arnold, a foul-mouthed American Army officer who eschews both formality and the respect that Furtwangler's fellow citizens afford him. When Arnold's secretary reports that the conductor wants to know how long he'll be kept waiting, the officer says, "Tell him, 'You'll wait until Major Arnold's ready to see you or until hell freezes over, whichever takes longer.'"

Genius, Arnold asserts, will have no bearing on what is essentially a criminal investigation. In fact Arnold explains he was chosen for the job primarily because he has no appreciation for Furtwängler's genius and presumably won't be blinded by his stardom. That's an intriguing idea, given that talent is the ticket by which war criminals often escape prosecution. Just ask any of the Nazi scientists who were welcomed in the United States with open arms after the war.

Taking Sides, however, is only able to scratch the surface. Set entirely in Arnold's office, the courtroom structure limits the play dramatically so it can't really do what it sets out to do -- evaluate Furtwangler's place in the political world.

Harwood has written Arnold as a foil to the urbane, polished conductor, but because Arnold is such an obnoxious lout, we are led to think that Furtwangler is the subject of a witch hunt. And Arnold is not impartial. The major explains that his visit to Bergen-Belsen has soured him against all Germans, particularly now that they are scurrying to hide their Nazi pasts. For this reason Arnold is determined to find the proverbial smoking gun in the conductor's past. It is entirely through Arnold, in fact, that we hear any information that is or may be detrimental to Furtwangler.

As you might expect, this makes for an unbalanced drama. I'm not sure it's the playwright's intention, but we root for Furtwangler because Arnold is such a poorly drawn adversary. He doesn't see the world in shades of gray, yet the era he lives in demands he navigate a gradient of morality. Harwood has set him up as the villain here and, if the idea is to stage a debate about taking sides, as the title suggests, it doesn't work. The choice is already made.

Director Rafael de Acha has cast James Samuel Randolph, a black actor, as Arnold. De Acha told me that, while it's not impossible that an African-American major would head such a hearing in that time period, his intention in choosing Randolph was, quite justifiably, to pick the best actor for the role. Randolph's imposing physical presence, in stark contrast to the more compact Bill Yule as Furtwangler, was forefront in the director's mind. While I'm entirely in favor of colorblind casting and I am a huge fan of de Acha, I can report that Randolph's presence adds a layer of obfuscation that the play cannot really carry.

While sitting through Taking Sides, I spent a great deal of time pondering other questions. Has Arnold actually been so affected by seeing concentration camp victims that he feels justified in going after Furtwangler regardless of the degree of the conductor's participation in the Nazi regime? Or has his experience with Jim Crow laws in America in the '40s influenced his views? Most important, does he understand that, by lumping all Germans together as evil, he is doing to them what white Americans have always done to blacks? These issues are interesting, but I'm not sure the play can handle the extra weight.

At the New Theatre, the balance tilts even further in favor of Furtwangler because of several odd acting dynamics. Yule plays the conductor with a crisp, stylized manner that draws on our stereotype of Germans as punctilious yet reveals minute personality traits in inventive ways. Randolph, on the other hand, is less subtle. It's possible that no one could carry off this role effectively, but Randolph -- especially given his imposing physical presence -- would be more powerful if he underplayed Arnold rather than presenting him as an overbearing oaf. The rest of the cast is great, but the production often feels like a battle of wills between the acting styles, with Yule winning hands down. Not that I'm taking sides.

Taking Sides.
Written by Ronald Harwood. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring James Samuel Randolph, Bill Yule, Iris Delgado, Heath Kelts, Ramon Gonzalez-Cuevas, and Edna Schwab. Through March 14. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.

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