In my harshly judgmental youth, record buying was sometimes morally agonizing. Twinges of Jewish guilt shot through me when I bought records by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf or Herbert von Karajan, great artists whose associations with the Nazis were undeniable. I never felt that way about the equally renowned conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, whose relationship with the regime was more ambiguous but who invested everything he conducted with spiritual profundity. In "Taking Sides," which has been given an overpowering production starring Daniel Massey and Ed Harris, playwright Ronald Harwood shows Furtwangler (Massey) in 1946 trying to clear himself of charges of aiding the Nazis before a relentless American major (Harris) who was an insurance claims adjuster before the war. Maj. Arnold, who says he can still smell burning flesh from the death camp he helped liberate, calls Furtwangler "the bandleader" and is unrelenting in his antagonism to him. He is assisted by a younger American, Lt. Wills, a Jew who escaped from Germany and whose parents died in Auschwitz. Wills, who, as a boy, heard Furtwangler conduct in Berlin, defends him ardently, even when the major quotes from anti-Semitic letters Furtwangler wrote. "Show me a non-Jew who hasn't made anti-Semitic remarks and I'll show you the gates of paradise," Wills replies. Harwood never lets Arnold show any sympathy for Furtwangler's situation. When confronted with evidence that the conductor helped many Jews escape, 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. Harris, however, right from the start, conveys that the major, though vulgar and bullheaded, has an unassailable integrity. By letting us see a primitive yearning for justice, an admirable Yankee skepticism beneath the crudity, Harris transcends the one-note character. At his first entrance, Massey gives the impression of a naive fool, a slightly goofy clown. It is an inspired choice because the distance he then travels from confusion and sputtering indignation to genuine agony is extraordinarily moving. The pathos Massey projects makes Furtwangler's justifications of his actions human, not merely philosophical. Michael Stuhlbarg is radiant as Wills, Elizabeth Marvel deeply touching as an Austrian secretary and Norbert Weisser perfect as a wily musician. Ann Dowd is less convincing as a distraught Furtwangler supporter. There is a slight miscalculation at the end. Furtwangler's Beethoven fills the theater, and Massey, after his last interview, stumbles across the rubble at the back. His aural presence is so great, the physical manifestation seems supe rfluous. Sensitively directed by David Jones, evocatively designed and lit, thrillingly acted, "Taking Sides," whatever its flaws, is a triumph.
Who needs full-frontal nudity? The most disturbing example of exposed flesh on a New York stage at the moment comes when Daniel Massey removes his gloves in ''Taking Sides,'' the new play by Ronald Harwood at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
First of all, the hands are immense, and to a degree you didn't realize when they were covered. And there's something preternatural about the combination of their pallor and size. But what's most striking is the importance with which Mr. Massey, portraying the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, invests them through a complete and harrowingly eloquent vocabulary of body language.
His arms are often held at a rigid, self-frustrating remove from his torso, as if the hands at the end of them were explosive devices. Indeed, just one of them would seem to be able to encircle and break a man's neck. They are not, as it happens, the hands of a warrior but of an artist who has used them on countless occasions to bring orchestras to life.
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. The year is 1946, and Furtwangler is facing an American tribunal in Berlin, where he is under investigation for continuing to work as a conductor in Hitler's Germany.
Mr. Massey, a star of the English stage who is little known in America, brings an Olympian complexity to what is essentially a pedestrian play. Mr. Harwood's script -- which sets Furtwangler against a philistine pit bull of an Army major (Ed Harris), determined to establish the conductor's moral complicity with the Nazis -- is a carefully mapped out debate that often feels like the senior project of a smart but not terribly imaginative college student.
The facts, pro and con, of Furtwangler's career under the Third Reich are presented clearly enough. Mr. Harwood (best known here as the author of ''The Dresser,'' a far more compelling drama) has obviously done his homework, though there's little information that couldn't be gleaned from two hours of research in a local library.
What the play, a success in London under the direction of Harold Pinter, fails to do is enrich this debate, which centers on whether art can be divorced from politics, with a dramatic structure that takes on new depths and shadows as the work progresses. The adversarial positions of Furtwangler and his interrogator are firmly fixed from the beginning.
And though there are eruptions of Sturm und Drang that befit a drama about one of Beethoven's prime interpreters, the text itself is peculiarly stationary, only marginally less so than the recent Presidential debates. And neither David Jones, the director here, nor the supporting cast can generate the searing urgency that ''Taking Sides'' requires.
None of this, however, dims the singular accomplishment of Mr. Massey's brave, extravagant and, yes, truly brilliant performance. This actor takes the eccentricities described in Furtwangler performance anecdotes that have entered classical music mythology and weaves them into a heartbreaking portrait of a man who, stripped of his very reason to be, has yet to find a new language to express himself.
In his heyday, Furtwangler was traditionally described as the antithesis of his great rival Arturo Toscanini. The Italian conductor was credited with an almost clinical devotion to scores as written and a rigid adherence to tempo. (''If he were a greater artist . . . he would not have become so disciplined,'' Furtwangler says in the play.)
Furtwangler, on the other hand, was described as having a strangely spiritual relationship with his music that defied orchestral conventions and suited the empyrean reach of Beethoven and Wagner. His use of the baton was anything but scientific, and jokes (a couple of which are repeated here) about just how the orchestra knew when he was signaling the downbeat are legion.
Though he habitually weaved and swayed at the podium, there was no suggestion of doubt in these movements. Yehudi Menuhin described him as ''an inspired mystic in the medieval German tradition . . . with the certainty and assurance of one who has seen visions and followed them.''
There are definitely visions, the nature of which we can only guess at, in the head of Mr. Massey's Furtwangler, and there is an undeniable weave in his walk. He seems to be waiting for unheard melodies to cue his behavior. And his appearance, which suggests a Dr. Seuss drawing of Boris Karloff in his later years, is almost nonhuman. The Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka described Furtwangler as ''an ambassador from another world,'' and the phrase fits Mr. Massey here to perfection.
Indeed, the image of an extraterrestrial, unmoored in an unfamiliar land, infuses the performance. As Steve Arnold (Mr. Harris), the snarling, seduction-proof American major who prides himself on his ignorance of classical music, hammers away at Furtwangler with questions about his relationship with the Reich, Mr. Massey responds with both grand distaste and fathomless perplexity. This is a man who, all too tragically, simply doesn't know the score.
Throughout his interrogations -- in which Arnold is abetted by a young lieutenant (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a German secretary (Elizabeth Marvel) -- Furtwangler sticks to his premise that ''art means more than politics,'' that by staying on in Germany, he reminded the abject of the transcendental. Arnold's doggedly held view is that Furtwangler was a piper who ''played their tune.''
The big problem is that the debate is lopsided, not in the persuasiveness of the individual arguments but in the characterizations of its proponents. Arnold's unstinting viciousness is never satisfactorily motivated, although there are references to nightmares inspired by his visits to concentration camps. Unimpressed by Furtwangler's status as an artist, he explains, ''I look for ordinary reasons, reasons I can understand, reasons my buddies can understand.''
That's pretty much the sum of the character: Arnold is the cultural barbarian of an American Everyman and as such, unmovable. Mr. Harris, a fine actor, seems uneasy with the role, especially in the first act, and he adopts a James Cagney swagger that is intermittently entertaining and seldom convincing.
Ms. Marvel and Mr. Stuhlbarg, gifted young performers, and Ann Dowd and Norbert Weisser, who play Germans who represent different degrees of Hitler-era sacrifice and compromise, all feel merely functional.
David Jenkins's set, a familiar evocation of a postwar world being rebuilt from rubble, is thematically appropriate. But the use of Furtwangler's recorded music (which is central to the little evolution Mr. Harris's character undergoes) is surprisingly ineffective.
That leaves Mr. Massey to fill in the blanks, and he goes a long way toward doing so. When Furtwangler is finally prodded into an outrage that is both self-justifying and self-doubting, those titanic hands and arms fly into a delirium of majestic, sweeping gestures. The conductor has, in a bizarre sense, found his tempo again. There is only cold comfort in the discovery.
"Taking Sides," Ronald Harwood's diagrammatic drama about German conductor (and accused Nazi sympathizer) Wilhelm Furtwangler, asks audiences to do as the title suggests by deciding whether art and politics can, as the maestro insisted , be kept separate. Was Furtwangler, as one devotee maintains in the play, "a symbol to the entire world of all that is great in culture and music," or a Nazi pawn whose concerts put a high-toned gloss on a murderous regime?
Both sides are presented with force if not conviction under David Jones' direction, force wins out although the play's none too subtle (and anti-American) sympathies with the conductor undermine much of the inherent drama; the "side" is chosen for us. As with the similarly themed "Old Wicked Songs" currently running Off Broadway, Harwood's play purports to address the complexity and nuance of art but does so with a hamfistedness that robs the endeavor of everything but good intentions.
At worst, the play suggests, Furtwangler, who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic during the Nazi years and was, indeed, a Hitler favorite, was a naive dupe whose notions about the supremacy of art were merely ill-conceived. More than two hours of debate the play is structured as a series of military inquisitions in the American-occupied zone of Berlin in 1946 seems to result in little more than Harwood's assertion that Furtwangler meant no harm. If that description is a simplification, it's one the author must share in. Furtwangler, who conducted on the eve of the Nuremberg rally, meant no harm? The obvious response is, So what? Doesn't he remain accountable?
Ironically, Harwood's one-sidedness (emphasized by the direction) might be his undoing. One can't help but devise mental arguments in opposition to Harwood's thesis, particularly since the American mouthpiece of the play a crude Army major played by Ed Harris amounts to little more than a stick figure incapable of bearing the weight of what should be a legitimate viewpoint. The detriment isn't merely philosophical, but theatrical as well.
Harris plays Major Steve Arnold, an Army investigator out to prove that Furtwangler (Daniel Massey, reprising his acclaimed West End performance) was in cahoots with the Hitler regime. Chosen for his anti-intellectual resistance to anything cultural (he repeatedly refers to the conductor as a "bandleader"), Arnold is haunted by the horrors he witnessed during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. He waves aside such notions as "justice" and "facts," telling a young assistant, "I'm interested in nailing the bastard."
The bastard, we're told often, is the greatest conductor in the world, a genius compared to whom Toscanini is merely a "metronome." Harwood sets the stage for Furtwangler's late act one arrival by first presenting two other interrogations. Arnold questions a nervous second violinist who repeats, as 28 others did before him, a memorized testimony of loyalty to his conductor. Next we're shown a distraught, emotionally wrecked young woman whose pianist husband was exterminated, despite Furtwangler's efforts to smuggle the young man out of the country (as he did many Jewish musicians). "You want to burn him at the stake!" the widow screams in defense of Furtwangler.
That the conductor required the pianist to audition (apparently for survival) is mentioned only in passing, one of the more astounding lapses in the play's moral investigations. The issue is briefly resurrected by the Army interrogator, who charges that the conductor's complaints were with the decline of musical standards under the Nazi regime rather than "racial policies," but the argument is tossed about with so many red herrings Furtwangler's sexual proclivities, his anti-Semitism, his rivalries with other conductors that legitimate issues lose their power.
Furtwangler's character (was he or wasn't he a Nazi?) dominates the interrogator's approach, but it should not dominate the play's: Harwood expends so much energy questioning, then establishing, that the conductor believes what he says that the moral veracity of that belief gets short shrift. Better to have conceded early on what Harwood clearly trusts: that, yes, Furtwangler did believe that "human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played." The more intriguing question remains, does that excuse him for playing?
In an odd way, Massey's strong (although at times distractingly quirky) performance as Furtwangler also muddies the play. He so clearly outweighs the opposition that the audience has little choice as to which side to take. His extravagant gestures he seems to "conduct" his conversation and idiosyncratic movement (watch him maneuver into a chair) are both fascinating and slightly repellent. Either way, you can't take your eyes off him. Harris, who plays the Army major at an unrelieved angry pitch, doesn't stand a chance.
Then again, that isn't entirely Harris' fault. Harwood sends him into battle with precious little ammunition. Even the motives of the character are questioned: While we're offered an emotional appeal on behalf of the Holocaust's victims, we're also led to believe that the Army officer is acting on orders from some mysterious authority out to get Furtwangler. American Jews? Secret government factions? Harwood can't, or rather won't, say, making his snide insinuations that the Army investigators employ Nazi tactics all the more egregious: The major's final lines involve controlling the American press specifically, the New York Times that recall earlier comments made in the play against the Hitler regime.
And Harwood can't help stacking the deck even further. Two secondary characters a shy German secretary and the young American lieutenant (American by naturalization, not birth, the playwright makes clear) are placed decidedly on the conductor's side. "Only tyrannies understand the power of art," says the lieutenant in one of the play's didacticisms, this after comparing Furtwangler to a fallen priest.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays the lieutenant in as restrained a manner as possible given the director's penchant for the hysterical. One loud outburst after another blunts the device's impact, and the entire production feels overwrought (including David Jenkins' set, which puts the interior of an Army office amid Berlin's bombed-out, rubble-strewn exterior). We're left with the image of Furtwangler surveying the damage, and can only imagine how powerful the scene might have been had the playwright allowed that his conductor was at least partly responsible.