When first seen, Bela Veracek (Alex Draper), the supposedly sympathetic protagonist of Howard Barker's 1981 No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming, is on a World War I battlefield facing a desperate bare-breasted woman whom he attempts to rape and, failing at that, then thinks about shooting her. It's not the most inviting introduction to a political cartoonist with whose survival over the next half-century audiences are apparently expected to sympathize heartily.
The undaunted Bela is featured in one-half of this season's PTP/NYC season, its 30th, now at Atlantic 2. The other play they're doing is C. P. Taylor's Good, both offerings being revivals from previous seasons. Good was also written in 1981 and tempts a reviewer to expound on English theatre in that particular year, but this low-resistance scribe will demur.
Let's just say that Good is not only good but better than No End of Blame, because Taylor has a much more graspable attitude towards his focal character. John Halder (Michael Kaye) is a German literary lecturer swept into the Nazi vortex with increasing enthusiasm.
And Halder's story, as Taylor writes it (and has won awards for doing so), is schematic. Once he sets things in play, it's not difficult to see where those unpleasant things are heading. It's the incremental steps towards a chilling end that keep Good focused.
In particular, Halder's interactions with his conflicted wife Helen (Valerie Leonard) and his seductive, ultimately seducing student Anne (Caitlin Rose Duffy) are intriguing. The relationship with Halder's institutionalized mother (Helen Chaffee) is another strong element in the man's advancing spinelessness.
Taylor's script, then, traces the undoing of a German everyman during World War II. It's a portrait of weakness triumphant--Halder's eventually donning an SS officer's uniform is disturbing--and it's nicely directly by Jim Petosa on an abstract set consisting of designer Mark Evancho's various large and small blocks.
Tall, imposing and somehow stern despite Halder's moral affliction, Kaye is thoroughly effective, as are Leonard, Duffy, Chaffee, Noah Berman as an obstreperously manic Hitler and Christo Grabowski as a friend who loves jazz even though it's officially considered degenerate art.
There may be those who rate the complex psychological makeup of Bela Veracek in No End of Blame as more involving than the predictable John Halder decline. It's obvious that the always politically driven Barker is asking observers to weigh Bela's pronounced pluses and minuses.
Yet, as the playwright contrives to drop Hungarian native Bela into and out of Russia, England and the United States at his unceasing attempts to keep his provocative cartoons free of suppression, the self-satisfied behavior right up to his 70s mitigates against any sustained appeal about him.
The "Scenes of Overcoming" end of the title doesn't exactly add up, because Bela never overcomes himself. He's one of those often-remarked-upon artists who think their evident talent excuses them from conventional civility.
If anything eases the edge on the alienating Bela it's Alex Draper's performance. PTP/NYC associate artistic director Draper is an invigorating actor always worth paying close attention to. He's a sparkplug of a guy energizing every line of dialog with inflections and gestures.
Co-artistic director Richard Romagnoli guides Draper and the rest of the cast, many playing several roles. Of them, David Barlow as Bela's cohort Grigor is also forceful as he, too, ages. Valerie Leonard, Stephanie Janssen, Christo Grabowski and Jonathan Tindle are others distinguishing themselves.
During No End of Blame, the self-denigrating (in some circumstances) Bela declares cartoons the lowest art form but also the most important for their capturing the fleeting moment. As an example of an artist working in a higher but less important realm, Bela mentions Francisco Goya. Not many art historians would agree with that view.