Reviews for the new Broadway drama, Taking Sides, which opened Oct. 17 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, have taken both sides on the piece.
Clive Barnes' enthusiastic New York Post review read, "Taking Sides is that welcomed rarity, a Broadway play which encourages thought and even promotes moral judgments. Yet it is also a knock-down, knockout exhibition of virtuoso, no-holds-barred acting from an admirable Ed Harris matched against the great English actor, Daniel Massey... Harris [is] grizzled, tough and viciously explosive... Massey is superb -- and the play is good enough to give him his unforgettable, and certainly unmissable, chance."
About the play itself, Barnes wrote, "Taking Sides is a brave attempt at an intellectual play which, ironically perhaps, in the final tally, wins on its purely visceral power and the heavyweight performances of its superlative players."
The Daily News' Howard Kissel also raved about the "overpowering production:" "Sensitively directed by David Jones, evocatively designed and lit, thrillingly acted, Taking Sides, whatever its flaws, is a triumph..."
Kissel does point out that "Harwood never lets Arnold [Ed Harris] show any sympathy for Furtwangler's [Daniel Massey's] situation. When confronted with evidence that the conductor helped many Jews escaped, the major can only counter with the millions who died, as if one man could have saved them all. This self-aggrandizing, self-righteousness, however historically accurate diminishes the play. If it were not for Harris' astounding performance, Arnold might seem merely a symptom of British anti-Americanism... By letting us see a primitive yearning for justice, an admirable Yankee skepticism beneath the crudity, Harris transcends the one-note character... The pathos Massey projects makes Furtwangler's justifications of his actions human, not merely philosophical. Michael Stuhlbarg is radiant as [the Jewish Lieutenant] Wills, Elizabeth Marvel deeply touching as an Austrian secretary, and Norbert Weisser perfect as a wily musician." Still positive but much less so is Newsday's Linda Winer, who points out that Taking Sides is the third recent major play in New York to offer lessons in classical music appreciation; Old Wicked Songs and Master Class are the other two. She notes that Ronald Harwood's play asks good and noble questions -- "perhaps noble enough questions to distract from the surprisingly feeble mechanisms and one-note theatrics of Harwood's script. The play, staged in London in 1995...is the sort of truth-on-trial interrogation drama much loved on Broadway in less ambiguous times -- superimposed on a problem play about the least comprehensible era in recent history. Harwood, best known here for the bravura backstage piece, The Dresser, is, unfortunately, not up to the questions he asks... This is basically well-meaning, pseudo-serious claptrap, overly schematic and psychologically clumsy... In fact, this is less a strugle about the use and abuse of art by the Nazis than a battle between sensitive people and the crude louts who don't like music."
"Characters are not people," Winer continued, "but plot devices, most egregiously the American soldier, played by the always valiant and exquisitely able Ed Harris... The star is supposed to be [Daniel] Massey, [but] inspired by reports of Furtwangler's extremely eccentric physicality on the podium, Massey lurches around as if he were stitched together by Dr. Frankenstein."
On the other hand, in his mixed review, New York Times critic Ben Brantley (calling Massey's performance "brave, extravagant and truly brilliant") is thrilled by the actor's body language: "Mr. Massey's entire posture bespeaks the baffled, angry, self-consciousness of an esthete who has been told that using his hands to make music is a criminal activity... Mr. Massey...brings an Olympian complexity to what is essentially a pedestrian play... The big problem is that the debate is lopsided, not in the persuasiveness of the individual arguments but in the characterizations of its proponents."