by Samuel L. Leiter
Howard Taubman of The New York Times praised Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy when it first premiered in 1964, but it was an opinion not widely shared and most other critics agreed with Richard Gilman that the play was “a windy, dated sermon” and Martin Gottfried that it was “awful.” This (together with a cast of 17 males) may explain why there’s been only one previous New York revival of the play (The Actors Company Theatre in 2009), despite the esteem in which its author is universally held. Like TACT’S revival, the present one—part of a centennial celebration honoring Miller’s birth—both reinforces early impressions of the play as a didactic exercise while also demonstrating its rhetoric’s ability to hold an audience in its grip during an intermissionless 95 minutes.
It’s September 1942 and ten men—eight Jews (one uses the word “Peruvians” as a cautious euphemism), a gypsy (Evan Zes), and an Austrian nobleman named Von Berg (Richard Thomas)—are rounded up in the streets of Vichy, headquarters of unoccupied France, and made to wait in a dingy detention room where a Nazi major and French officials will determine if they’re Jews.
The Jews are Marchand (John Procaccino), a wealthy businessman; Bayard (Alex Morf), a Communist electrician; a boy of 14 (Jonathan Gordon, too old); Lebeau (Jonny Orsini), a starving artist whose nervousness drives much of the conversation; Monceau (Derek Smith), an actor; a waiter (David Abeles); Leduc (Darren Pettie), a psychiatrist who studied in Vienna; and a pious, bearded old man (Jonathan Hadary), wordless except when quietly praying.
As, one by one, they’re summoned to an office by Professor Hoffman (Brian Cross), a “racial anthropologist,” they fearfully discuss the evils of Nazism, the implementation of “racial laws,” rumors of concentration camp-bound trains and furnaces, labor vs. capital, the disputable integrity of the working classes, Jewish identity based on nose size and circumcision, their chances of survival, the psychology of victimization, and the possibility of escape. The major (James Carpinello) shows a degree of sympathy but is a victim of his military duty. Miller contrives to have the mistakenly arrested Von Berg, the refined, compassionate, if somewhat politically naïve Austrian prince, who despises the Nazis for their “vulgarity,” and the intellectual Leduc be the last two victims (both were inspired by actual people); this provides an opportunity for Miller to air his biggest arguments about guilt and responsibility, thus setting up the melodramatically implausible denouement that brings the play to its dark finale.
It’s hard not to hear in the play’s preoccupations echoes of atrocities in the Middle East and Africa, international terrorism, mass deportations and migrations, racial and religious hatred, and many other continuing cruelties that show how little we’ve evolved since the Holocaust. In his climactic scene with Von Berg, Leduc insists that the problem is not anti-Semitism but man’s fear of “the other,” so that all men have their Jews, including the Jews themselves (the gypsy’s presence underlines the point); we’re all guilty, in other words.
Michael Wilson’s unhurried, suitably suspenseful staging—set within the dank surroundings of the Vichy holding quarters, designed by Jeff Cowie and lit by David Lander to emphasize its squalid atmosphere—allows the characters to come into focus and for their respective points of view to be aired. Still, despite their convictions, fears, and occasional outbursts, it’s hard to avoid the faint smell of greasepaint rather than the stink of humanity wafting toward us; everyone’s a theatrical construct, a mouthpiece for an idea or attitude, speaking dialogue that’s often clouded and stiff.
No one, though, seems in the least European—a problem perhaps insurmountable when an American creates an entire cast of European roles to be acted by Americans. Even casting an actor with a small nose as the one who gets measured draws attention to the difficulty. Given the noteworthy proboscises on many Frenchmen, it’s a wonder Charles de Gaulle wasn’t mistaken for the Grand Rabbi of Free France.
Incident at Vichy is a discussion play whose ideas are more stimulating than the way they’re dramatized. While this may not be its dream production, it nonetheless conveys those ideas efficiently and, for some, I’m sure, movingly.
Incident at Vichy
Signature Theatre Company
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through December 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).