Two separate revivals of plays by Arthur Miller on the centennial of his birth illustrate two core aims of his work: “I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world,” he said. And: Playwriting is “a kind of license to say the unspeakable….”
Incident at Vichy, presented by the Signature Theatre in the first major New York production since its short Broadway run in 1964, is intelligent, well acted, and occasionally so relevant that it’s chilling. The action takes place in Vichy, France in 1942, when some dozen men have been rounded up, waiting in an old warehouse that is being used as a detention center as they are brought in one by one for interrogation by both French police and a Nazi professor from the “Race Institute.” Once they leave the stage for the interrogation, most never come back.
The detainees are a varied group, representing different types or specific points of view. Many aren’t even given names; they are labeled Gypsy, Waiter, Boy, Old Jew.
But all are made distinctive. Richard Thomas (still best-known for his role in the TV series The Waltons) gives a stand-out performance as an Austrian Prince, Von Berg, who left his country because of his shock at the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. He is ultimately who the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem would call one of the Righteous Gentiles. By contrast, Miller has also conjured up a Major in the German Army, convincingly portrayed by James Carpinello, who is reluctantly attached to this detail, but unwilling to make sacrifices for his conscience; he gets drunk instead.
Full of anxiety, the detainees begin to talk among themselves,
“Listen, you are….Peruvian aren’t you?” a nervous painter named Lebeau (portrayed by Jonny Orsini) asks an electrician named Bayard (Alex Morf), his codeword for Jewish.
Soon their conversations turn to life-and-death issues – such as how much difference an individual can make in the face of worldwide evil.
Incident at Vichy is a lesser known of Miller’s plays. It’s stagey, with a too obvious structure, a problem that even such a first-rate director as Michael Wilson (whose credits include The Trip to Bountiful with Cicely Tyson) is unable to solve. Some of the debates don’t hold the urgency they had 50 years ago. But there are gasp-worthy moments that make Miller feel like a prophet.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
When several detainees report what they’ve heard — that the Nazis are sending Jews on freight cars to death camps – others reject this as impossible. Monceau the actor (Derek Smith) is the chief skeptic. “What good are dead Jews to them? They want free labor…There’s no conceivable advantage for them in such a thing.”
“That is their power – -to do the inconceivable,” answers Von Berg. “It paralyzes the rest of us….If you despise Jews the most honest thing is to burn them up. And the fact that it costs money, and uses up trains and personnel – this only guarantees the integrity, the purity, the existence of their feelings. You must not calculate these people with some nineteenth century arithmetic of loss and gain. Their motives are musical, and people are merely sounds they play. And in my opinion, win or lose this war, they have pointed the way to the future.”
Incident at Vichy is on stage at the Signature Theatre (480 West 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, just east of 10th Avenue) through December 20, 2015.
Tickets and details
Incident at Vichy . Written by Arthur Miller; Directed by Michael Wilson . Cast: David Abeles, Curtis Billings, James Carpinello, AJ Cedeno, Quinlan Corbett, Brian Cross, Demosthenes Chrysan, Jonathan Gordon, Jonathan Hadary, Alex Morf, Jonny Orsini, Darren Pettie, John Procaccino, Alec Shaw, Derek Smith, Richard Thomas and Evan Zes . Scenic Design: Jeff Cowie . Costume Design: David C. Woolard . Lighting Design: David Lander . Sound Design: John Gromada . Projection Design: Rocco DiSanti . Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht . Fight Direction: Mark Olsen . Production Stage Manager: Robert Bennett . Produced by Signature Theatre.