31 December 2015

"A Mirror of Subterranean Wonders"

by  Alissa J. Rubin

[Art has been an endeavor of humankind almost since their predecessors crawled out of the sea.  Before inventing the wheel, before creating the alphabet, before domesticating animals or discovering agriculture, humans were doing performances and painting on cave walls.  Long before the historical record of our exploits and progress, the story of human beings was told in cave paintings.  New discoveries of and from such ancient finds, even from ones we were already examining, has always fascinated me.  (Just a few days before I prepared this introduction, a new rock structure near Stonehenge in England was found under the ground.  Archeologists are bound to be learning new things about the builders—and the still-mysterious Stonehenge as well—for decades to come.  New interpretations of what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, have been advanced in the past few weeks.  We never stop learning about our own past and the history of the Earth.)  Alissa J. Rubin's A Mirror of Subterranean Wonders,” originally published in The Arts” section of the New York Times of 25 April 2015, reports on one of those old discoveries, the 32-36,000-year-old paintings at Chauvet Cave in France.  What she describes is almost as remarkable as the initial discovery in 1992.]

CHAUVET CAVE, France — After the retreat of Neanderthals across the European continent, modern humans made their way to this cave and began to create the first known works of pictorial art: buffalos surging across the rock background, rhinoceroses doing battle, lions searching for mates and dark-maned horses cantering.

Twenty years after these cave paintings were discovered near the Ardèche River in south-central France, they remain closed to the public for preservation’s sake. But on Saturday, a replica built nearby at a cost of $59 million will open, allowing the public to approximate the experience of the cave explorers who found the paintings.

The rock art in the Chauvet cave, created 32,000 to 36,000 years ago, puts flesh and fur and character onto a world previously known largely through fossil remains. Although archaeologists have recorded the impulse to create art in markings on rock and carved beads as far back as 75,000 years ago, the workmanship in these cave paintings is of another order. The subject matter, the animal world, is familiar, creating a remarkable feeling of connection with the distant past. The paintings are among the world’s most celebrated prehistoric artworks, featured in Werner Herzog’s 2011 3-Dmovie, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

“The skill of these artists, the painting, is amazing,” said Jean Clottes, the French archaeologist who first authenticated the cave for France’s Culture Ministry.

“The walls are covered with engravings; the bison here appears to have eight legs — it’s as if he’s running,” Mr. Clottes said, gesturing toward a figure on the rock behind him as he walked through the replica of the cave with journalists before its official opening.

The first step in making the replica was erecting scaffolding and then covering it with a mortar that simulated the rock surface of the original cave. Photographs of the original paintings were projected onto the surface of the newly created rock. Artists led by, among others, Gilles Tosello, an expert in this prehistoric era who is also trained in the plastic arts, painstakingly copied the paintings with the same materials the original artists also used, charcoal made from Sylvester pine trees and ocher paint made from minerals.

While the paintings have been reproduced at the same size as the originals, the replica over all is slightly less than half the size of the 91,000-square-foot Chauvet cave. Kléber Rossillon, the company that manages the replica site, is planning to have groups of up to 30 enter every few minutes with a guide.

Marie Badisa, the Culture Ministry’s curator for the cave, views the Chauvet paintings as “a true conceptual artistic representation.” The sense of movement the artists captured has been described as “prehistoric cinema,” she said as she led four journalists on a rare visit to the original cave.

Like other researchers who have studied the work, she sees the art’s sophistication as a testament that civilization and culture appeared far earlier in human history than was previously thought.

Exploring the original cave requires a 30-minute hike to the foot of the limestone cliffs above the Ardèche River and then up a winding path to a simple rock shelter where visitors, rarely admitted, leave their belongings. At the cave’s entrance, journalists donned coveralls similar to those used in a hospital operating room, special rubber shoes, a helmet equipped with a headlamp, and a harness and belt to attach to the ladders and cables that extend into the cave’s depths. The goal is to protect the cave from contamination by anything on the visitors’ clothes or skin.

Then came the descent through a narrow opening in the rocks. As the air became cool, dark and damp, it was like entering another world. The darkness was encompassing; the light from the headlamps did little to illuminate the rock chamber’s depths, and the walls receded in darkness and shadows. The sounds of dripping water and echoing steps were magnified in this vast blackness.

Headlamps bobbed as the visitors followed metal walkways installed to protect the soft cave floor, with its prints of bear paws and the shallow depressions they dug as sleeping areas where they hibernated. The lamps revealed the cave’s extraordinary beauty: Stalactites and stalagmites sparkled as if crushed diamonds had been mixed with the sandy colored rock. The cave seemed alive, even growing, with new finger-length stalactites forming on many rock surfaces like the thinnest, most delicate of icicles. Those glittering surfaces are more recent than those of the flatter rock where humans drew their images, Ms. Badisa said.

On the walls, lions stalked, and a remarkable owl stared down from a branch, its head turned all the way around so that it was regarding us over its wings. Less familiar were the mammoths — a hairy relative of today’s elephants — and the aurochs, large horned wild cows that are also extinct today. The detailed nature of the drawings suggested how closely entwined the human and animal world must have been, allowing for close observation of the horses’ manes, an owl’s feathers and the black markings on the rhinos’ torsos. The bulk of the bodies and the play of shadow and light are reminiscent of Picasso, and it is hardly surprising that he visited other prehistoric caves and was struck by the paintings’ extraordinary life.

Of the more than 1,000 creatures inventoried on the walls of the Chauvet cave, just one appears to be human: a woman with the head of a bison, suggesting to some archaeologists that the cave was used for shamanistic practices. There are also several images of vulvas, presumably a tribute to the power to give birth.

Caves with remarkable prehistoric paintings have been discovered across southern France and northern Spain. The two most famous are at Lascauxin southwestern France and Altamira in northern Spain, but the paintings there are less than half as old as those at Chauvet.

The site at Lascaux, discovered in 1940, was initially open to the public but was closed in 1963 after tragic damage to the paintings by carbon dioxide from the breath of hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The air entering from outside allowed fungi and algae to gain a foothold, also obscuring the original drawings. Cleaning them would cause further damage. The Lascaux experience prompted Mr. Clottes, the archaeologist, to advise the French government immediately after the discovery of the Chauvet cave to close it and secure the entrance.

Altamira was closed in 2002 for fear of damage, but Spanish cultural officials began experimenting with allowing very small groups of people to enter again last year. Both sites also rely on adjacent museums with replicas to give the public a sense of what is inside.

The Chauvet cave’s discovery came in late December 1994, when Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, all experienced cavers, were exploring the limestone cliffs just above the Ardèche River and found an opening that they thought might lead to an underground chamber. They squeezed through, and as Ms. Brunel-Deschamps took in her surroundings, she cried out, “They have been here!”

Who “they” were is an irresistible question to anyone who sees this art.

Archaeologists have pondered how and why early man used the cave. Geologists and paleontologists have helped to date not just the paintings but the other artifacts found in the cave’s chambers, including bones, mostly of the bears that shared the space with humans, and the charred wood and ashes of fires that the artists made to create the charcoal they used on the walls. There have been academic disputes about the exact dating of the cave as well as different hypotheses about the purpose of the decorations.

Inevitably, the replica does not reproduce the original cave’s air of mystery and grandeur or the sense of a profound encounter with the past. But the copied paintings capture the spirit of the originals, bringing the animals to life as they pace gracefully and powerfully across the rock, a tribute to the eternal drive of artists to capture life.

[Alissa J. Rubin began covering the Middle East for the New York Times in 2007.  In August 2007, she was named the Times deputy Baghdad bureau chief.  Currently, she’s the paper’s bureau chief in Paris.  Previously, she had been a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.]

26 December 2015

'The Crucible' (Shaw Festival, 2006)

[On 8 and 11 December, after ROT published my friend Kirk Woodward’s article “Eric Bentley On Bernard Shaw” (3 December), I posted a two-part report on my attendance at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, in August 2006.  The post was a large excerpt from a complete report of that trip from which I excised all the performance discussions except those of the two Shaw plays in that season’s bill.  One of the other plays offered that year was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and because I’ve just posted a report on another Miller production, Incident at Vichy, on 16 December, I thought it would be worthwhile to run my excerpted remarks from that 2006 production of another Miller history play.  I hope ROT readers will find the comparison interesting.]

The trip to the Shaw Festival, which was organized by the Round House Theatre of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland, left on Monday, 7 August, and returned on Monday, 14 August 2006; both Mondays were travel days, allowing for five days of theater (and a little sightseeing, too, of course).  The theater pre-booked six shows for us (leaving four from which we could select however many additional performances we wanted); Miller’s The Crucible was scheduled for the 2 p.m. matinee on Wednesday, 9 August, our second performance of the trip.  The show was presented in the 850-seat Festival Theatre, the largest and newest of the Shaw’s three performance spaces, opened in 1973After a rather wan theater experience there the previous evening at Arthur Kopit and Cole Porter’s High Society, the 1997 musical adaptation (based on the 1956 musical film) of Philip Barry’s 1939 Philadelphia Story, it was a terrific start to a most enjoyable week of theater.

The Shaw Festival has a “mandate,” to present the plays of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries.  (An explanation of this somewhat flexible directive is provided in my omnibus report on the festival.)  The Crucible was written three years after Shaw’s death, isn’t set during the Irishman’s lifetime, and even its inspiration, McCarthyism, didn’t really get started until after GBS’s death, so how did it qualify for the Shaw Festival?  In the category of plays by a GBS contemporary then, Crucible qualifies for inclusion in the festival’s program because Miller (1915-2005) lived during the latter half of Shaw’s long lifespan.  

The Crucible premièred on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld) in 1953.  It ran 197 performances and garnered the 1953 Best Play Tony for Miller.  The play’s been revived on Broadway four times since then and a new mounting is scheduled to come to the Walter Kerr next year as part of the informal celebration of the playwright’s centennial this year.  (The new revival will be directed by  Ivo van Hove, the Flemish avant-garde director who is also responsible for the current, highly-praised production of Miller’s View from the Bridge at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre.  The upcoming Crucible’s cast is expected to include Ciarán Hinds, and Ben Whishaw and Saoirse Ronan in their Broadway débuts.)  There have also been three Off-Broadway productions between 1958 and 1990.  In Canada, a French-language production was staged in Montreal in 1966 and that same year, an English version was presented in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  In 1961, composer Robert Ward adapted The Crucible into an opera, which won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Music Critics Circle Citation.  British Independent Television aired an adaptation in 1959 with stars including Sean Connery and Susannah York.  George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, and Melvyn Douglas starred in a CBS-TV broadcast in 1967; the BBC mounted another TV version in 1980   A French film, under the title Les sorcières de Salem and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, was released in 1957 and in 1996, Miller himself wrote a film adaptation of the play (for which he received his only Oscar nomination—for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published) starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, and many other stars from Hollywood and the British screen and stage world.  In 2014, London’s Old Vic filmed a stage production that was released as a movie in the U.K. and Ireland.

The play’s story, set in Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692, unfolds during the prosecution of the infamous Salem witch trials (1692-93).  Some 20 colonists were tried for practicing witchcraft and executed during this notorious episode as neighbor turned on neighbor.  Miller was already researching the story and considering it as the basis for a play in 1952 when his friend Elia Kazan, the Group Theater member who had directed Miller’s first two stage successes, 1947’s All My Sons and 1949’s Death of a Salesman, was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (known informally and universally as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC).  HUAC (abetted by Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy in the Senate) was on its own witch hunt in the 1950s, searching everywhere for communists.  It was focusing on the American entertainment business, both television and film in Hollywood and theater in New York.  Once again, friend turned on friend and colleague on colleague.  Informing on others who might have associated with communist or socialist organizations as long ago as the 1930s was encouraged—and failing to do so could end in an actor’s, director’s, or writer’s imprisonment for contempt of Congress, while those implicated, even just suspected, would face, first, blacklisting in their industry and, second, incarceration.  As in Salem, little proof was required—just someone to point an accusatory finger.  Kazan, who’d been called once before, decided to name names rather than face the ruin of his nascent and burgeoning career as a successful film director. 

Miller saw parallels between HUAC’s and Tail-Gunner Joe’s commie witch hunts in the 1950s and the Salem trials in the 1690s.  This is what The Crucible was intended to examine in the story of John and Elizabeth Proctor, a Salem farmer and his wife caught up in the midst of communal hysteria and fear, duplicity and self-serving denunciation by one neighbor against another, one former friend against another.  Miller used actual transcripts and records of the hearings as the basis for his script—though, of course, he took some artistic license to create the drama.  The play still speaks powerfully to us today, even though HUAC and Joe McCarthy are both gone—and so is Soviet communism.  The spirit of McCarthyism continually raises its ugly head, both abroad and in our own country (think Islamophobia, for instance, or a few decades ago, Japanophobia, the fear that the Japanese were buying up the whole country).  Witch hunts, it seems, never really go out of style.  The witch-hunters just find new targets.

After John Proctor, a married man and independent-minded farmer, decides to break off his affair with 17-year-old Abigail Williams, Reverend Samuel Parris’s niece, she leads other local girls in a magical ceremony in the woods at night to cast a spell on Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, to cause her death.  When the girls are discovered dancing with Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave who practices voodoo in secret, they are brought to trial for practicing witchcraft.  Accusations begin to fly, often for motives more temporal than spiritual, and a literal witch hunt gets underway.  Before long, Elizabeth Proctor is suspected of witchcraft, and John’s attempt to defend her only makes matters worse and he ends up in the dock, too.  Soon, the entire village is embroiled in the hunt for witches and every settler is either an accused or an accuser.  Those who confess to witchcraft will be spared execution and many do so, but Proctor and some others refuse to make false confessions.  In the end, Proctor will hang, though the play ends before he goes to his death.

Some critics apparently felt that Benedict Campbell’s Proctor was too strong a man to have been tempted by Charlotte Gowdy’s Abigail.  I didn’t agree.  Aside from the fact that the fall of such a man makes the situation the more dramatic, I see no contradiction in the fall of a strong man at the hands of a weaker woman.  I believe it has happened—both in life and in literature.  Further, I don’t see Abigail, no matter who plays her, as so ineffectual: she does launch and maintain the conspiracy; she faces down the threats and intimidations of both Proctor and Danforth; and she keeps the girls under her control, especially the erstwhile defector Mary Warren (Trish Lindstrom), even right under the gaze of all the powers of Salem.  I had no problem with this pairing.

The other ensemble members were all good, carving out believable personae for their characters, both the righteous ones and the benighted, venal ones.  This was an ensemble production—I didn’t mean to single Campbell out for his acting; it was just the role that made him need comment—and the company portrayed a convincing community, albeit one coming apart at the seams from internal conflicts.  (This may be the one major fault in the play in production as far as its political point is concerned: even Jim Mezon's Deputy Governor Danforth, the self-righteous inquisitor, is understandable in his wrong-headedness.  Not forgivable—but understandable.  It was totally correct for the actor to play him this way—as a flawed human who believes in what he’s doing even when he’s wrong—but as a political allegory, he should be inhuman and evil, like, say, Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.)  The acting in The Crucible was all at a very high pitch.  In almost any other case, it would probably have been considered over-the-top scenery-chewing.  Here, it just seemed appropriate.  After all, think about what’s happening to these people: they’re being accused of the most heinous crime possible in their society—consorting with the devil.  Not only that, but it’s a false charge based on lies no one wants to acknowledge.  They’re caught in gigantic Chinese fingercuffs: the harder they struggle to get out, the tighter they’re bound.  And the end result isn’t jail or loss of property, it’s death—death and ignominy their families will have to live with after they’re gone.  If that’s not reason to rant and fulminate, I don’t know what is. 

The acting, as I intimated, was excellent.  Bernard Behrens, for instance, does a wonderfully fractious Giles Corey.  I especially noted the way the actors handled the array of local characters in the village.  This company demonstrated that they have the skill  to focus on bit characters with the same care that British casts apply (especially in films and television).  This was particularly in evidence in Crucible, though Miller’s characters are much more fleshed out in the text; there is even an edition of the published script with historical character notes from the playwright’s research.  I’ll draw a conclusion from perhaps insufficient evidence and say that this acting skill, the focus on incidental characters, is an inheritance Canadian actors received from the decades during which they were an adjunct of British theater up till the middle/late ’50s and early ’60s.  I know Canadian theater (and culture in general) struggled to carve out its own identity, separate from both its former British colonial overlords and its behemoth neighbor to the south, but it seems to me (being an outsider and not so emotionally invested in the struggle) that the theater, at least, has gotten some benefit from that long tutelage.  At the same time, they handle the Stanislavsky/Method stuff pretty well, too—something the Brits have only come to terms with in the past few decades.  So, in the short run at least, the Canadians got the best of both theater worlds.

The Crucible was the first production of the festival where I began to notice the design.  (In almost all of the festival presentations, the sets, especially, were remarkable elements of the productions.)  I’m not sure that I can adequately describe the kinetic set, so you may just have to accept my assertion that it was striking and intriguing.  The designer is Peter Hartwell, whose work I don’t know but he’s designed for many top U.S. companies, including New York’s Public Theater.  (The whole production design is good: costumes by Teresa Przybylski; lights by Kevin Lamotte; and original music by Paul Sportelli, the Shaw’s musical director for eight seasons.)  The performance started with a scrim across the proscenium opening, painted with a black-and-white forest as if we were standing in its midst.  The sounds of a Puritan hymn filtered in and we saw the enlarged shadows of people from the waist up, their arms raised to heaven.  As the people moved forward and the shadows shrank to human proportions, Sportelli’s music, based on the Puritan hymn, became distorted and skewed to make it sound ominous and frightening in contrast to the flat, univocal sound—the Puritans apparently didn’t approve of harmony—when the hymns were sung in church.  As the scrim rose, the townspeople scattered and we were in the upper floor of the house of Reverend Parris (Ric Reid), the bedroom of his afflicted daughter, Betty (Katie Cambone-Mannell).  (A variation on the scrim technique was used again at the top of act two.)   

The playing area was a square of raw planks in the center of the stage; the surrounding areas of the stage were dim and ambiguous.  Over the actors’ heads was a huge wooden frame filled in by panels of Plexiglas like a giant window or skylight.  The frame was angled like a slanted roof, but there were objects attached to it—a baby carriage, for instance—and there was a door in it.  Attached to the frame at the stage-left edge of the platform was a wheel like a small waterwheel.  When the scene changed—to Proctor’s first-floor room, for example—the frame rotated as if driven by the wheel, like a gigantic grinding mill—a dark Satanic mill—or a torture rack, coming to rest in a different position.  It formed the back wall of the room behind the court (hence the door), the ceiling of Proctor’s front room (parallel to the floor this time), and the wall of the cell in which Proctor is tempted by Danforth, Reverend John Hale (Peter Krantz), and Reverend Parris to sign his confession while he confronts his wife. 

All the set (with the exception, of course, of the clear plastic windows) was rough wood—planks, timbers, beams.  The few pieces of furniture—Betty Parris’s bed, the Proctors’ table, the benches at the court, and such.—were all crude, simple constructions as you might imagine in a 17th-century Puritan colonial village.  Though the set was fragmentary, all the elements—the furniture, props, and costumes—were essentially naturalistic (however symbolically they were used), as was the acting, yet the whole thing had an air of Russian Constructivism to it—an (infernal) machine for acting.  One significant design element was stylistically opposed to the basically naturalistic unit.  It seemed as if designer Hartwell was evoking a threatening and torturous world driving the little village of Salem.  It was all very effective.

I did have one, small problem with the staging—a directorial misstep, I think, rather than a design error.  For almost all of the play, that square, plank platform demarked the "on stage" playing area—the limits of the rooms in which the action took place.  Off the platform, between it and the wings, was no-man’s land—ambiguous territory.  No actor violated this space in any of the scenes, except in the second set that represented the Proctors’ first floor.  Characters entered and exited the house by walking across the no-man’s strip at stage left, and that was fine.  It should have represented the "outside" of the house.  But several times, when characters were coming and going (when the court officers arrived to arrest Elizabeth Proctor), several delivered lines from the ambiguous area as if they were still inside the house.  If they had indicated somehow that they were talking to someone inside while they were outside, that would have passed, but they didn’t.  It broke what I thought was established convention for the production, and I didn’t know why the director, Tadeusz Bradecki, did it.  There were about a half dozen people in the scene, and I wondered if the director thought it had gotten too crowded—but, first of all, I didn’t see that problem and, second, if he had to move some actors off to disperse the scene, there should be some adjustment to show that they are now outdoors.  The acting was far too good for this to have been just bad acting, a failure to execute a minor technical adjustment. 

Some in our group questioned another directorial choice, with which I had no trouble.  In the final scene, when Proctor first confronts his wife alone after months of imprisonment and separation, a lot of the Round House spectators thought Elizabeth (Kelli Fox) or John ought to have crossed in and embraced, or at least touched, the other.  Bradecki had them standing at pretty much opposite sides of the cell—and I saw this as perfectly appropriate under the circumstances as the production played them.  The psychological gulf between them, from John’s adultery, Elizabeth’s sense of guilt for having driven him to that and her slowness to have forgiven him, his dilemma over making a false confession so he can stay with her for the year she’s been granted to bear her child, her reluctance to persuade him either way—all these and other emotional burdens made a hesitancy to embrace perfectly acceptable to me.  As it happened, that was how Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw’s artistic director, explained director Bradecki’s reasoning, more or less, when someone raised that question at the Round House cocktail party later that evening.  I had no trouble buying it.  I also think the tension from what seemed like John’s and Elizabeth’s need to connect but fear of doing so made the scene more painful, which is right, too.

I know lots of people dismiss The Crucible as no longer relevant, somewhat precious, or politically suspect/naive, but I’ve always liked it.  I think Miller’s point is powerful and valid—perhaps even more today than it has been at any time since the 1950s—and the parallels he found or devised between the witch trials and the McCarthy probes are remarkable, especially considering how much they are based on actual 17th-century records.  (The fact that there are records of those trials is remarkable in itself—but that’s not a theater issue.)  Sitting and watching this then-53-year-old play made me realize very palpably how far backwards we’ve gone in recent years—and how very dangerous and frightening that is.  As powerful an indictment of McCarthyist society Crucible was in 1953, it is just as clear a warning for our era of Patriot Acts, Guantanamo prison camps, and warrantless wiretaps. 

I did wonder how the Canadians respond to this play since it isn’t about their society and Miller isn’t speaking to them directly.  Canada is the target of terrorism, too, of course, and there have been Canadian troops fighting—and dying—in Afghanistan—but, so far at least, Canadians haven’t been subjected to Bushfascism yet (any more than they had a Tail-Gunner Joe or a HUAC).  Maybe they see it as a warning not to follow too closely in our path.  Or maybe they see it as an indictment of the big bully to the south.  I can say, though, that in performance they didn’t soft-pedal the message or mute the play’s voice.  Director Bradecki (a 51-year-old Pole, which may have made his take on this drama more perceptive) staged a full-voiced production, especially the actor who played John Proctor, Benedict Campbell, who was excellent.  He gave full, unapologetic rein to Proctor’s stiff-backed pride, his anguish, his guilt, and his horror at what he sees happening to him and his neighbors even as he tries to stop it.  His final resignation—to die rather than swear to a lie to save his life, to put his precious name on a false confession—in the presence of his pregnant wife (who would live for at least another year without him if he doesn’t confess) was easily one of the most dramatic moments in the festival. 

[Some have pointed out that the putative parallel between the actual witch hunts of the 17th century and the red hunts of the 1950s is invalid because, as Molly (Day Thatcher) Kazan, Elia Kazan’s wife, told Miller, there never really were any witches, but there were communists (including in the entertainment business: Miller himself had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s).  Though this is undeniably true—witches are imaginary; communists are real—parallels still pertained.  The fear and paranoia engendered by both was equally real and both were demonized by the established authorities of their respective societies.  The communal hysteria generated by rumors of witches in Salem was almost exactly duplicated by the rabid anti-communists of the McCarthy era and though execution was not an end result in the commie witch hunt as it had been for the actual witch trials of the 1690s, many careers and lives were utterly destroyed as a result of the hearings, trials, and denunciations by such publications as Red Channels.  Furthermore, the potential dangers attributed to both witches and communists in the entertainment industry (I’m not referring to actual spies like the Rosenbergs), were equally specious.  Miller himself pointed out that while we know today that there are no such things as witches (I’m not talking about modern-day Wiccans), to deny their existence in Salem 325 years ago was ill-advised and doing so could put a settler’s life in jeopardy since it was the colony authorities (the colonial equivalent to the state or, in the case of HUAC, our federal government) which determined what’s real and what’s a myth.  In the 17th century, witches and witchcraft were as real as communists and communism was in the 20th; in 17th-century England, there was even a man, Matthew Hopkins, who assumed the self-appointed position of Witchfinder General.]

21 December 2015

'Night is a Room'

[As I disclosed on my post for Incident at Vichy on 16 December,  my computer suffered a serious malfunction just as I was starting that report.  The extensive delay caused me to push the Incident report and this one on Night is a Room back.  It’s always my intention to get my performance reports on line while the shows are still in theaters, but unfortunately, Naomi Wallace’s Night has closed now.  I apologize again to ROTters and I hope you all get some benefit from the belated reports nonetheless.  ~Rick]
Have you ever heard of GSA?  Not the Girl Scouts of America or the General Services Administration, the government agency that runs the fed’s physical plant—buildings, vehicles, and whatnot.  This GSA stands for genetic sexual attraction—and it’s not the same as “chemistry” when we talk about relationships (see Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls discussing with Sarah Brown how to recognize love in “I’ll Know”: “Mine will come as a surprise to me / Mine I leave to chance and chemistry”).  GSA is defined in Wikipedia as “sexual attraction between close relatives, such as siblings or half-siblings, a parent and offspring, or first and second cousins, who first meet as adults.”  Apparently, it’s a thing!  And Naomi Wallace has written a play about it.

The play is Night is a Room, which my theater partner, Diana, and I saw on the evening of Friday, 4 December, at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row.  Night was Wallace’s third and last production in Signature’s Residency One term and the production, directed by Bill Rauch (artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 2007), was the play’s world première.  (Her previous residency productions at Signature were And I and Silence, 2014, and The Liquid Plain, 2015.)  Wallace took her title from William Carlos Williams’s 1921 poem “Complaint,” which has a line that reads: “Night is a room / darkened for lovers.”  (Wallace has used lines from poems as titles for many of her plays.  The only other Wallace play I’ve seen, One Flea Spare, which I saw at the Public Theater in 1996, takes its title from John Donne’s “The Flea,” published in 1633.  As with Night, the poems often don’t seem to have anything to do with the plays or their themes.  “Complaint,” for instance, is about a doctor—which was Williams’s other profession—paying a house call on a patient.)  Night started previews in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre on 3 November and opened on 22 November; the première closed on 20 December (after a week’s extension).

Naomi Wallace was born in Prospect, Kentucky, in 1960.  She lives part of the time in Kentucky and part with her husband and family in Yorkshire, England.  Best known as a playwright, Wallace is also a poet and screenwriter; she also composes adaptations of novels for the stage (William Wharton’s Birdy, Harvest by Jim Crace of the U.K., Returning to Haifa by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, Palestinian-American playwright’s The Corpse Washer).  She’s been called “a dedicated advocate for justice and human rights in the U.S. and abroad, and for Palestinian rights in the Middle East” and was detained by Homeland Security in 2007 for travelling to Cuba. 

Most of the dramatist’s plays before Night have been non-realistic in style—appearances of ghosts and dead children “always seem to end up in my plays,” Wallace quippedand were drawn from “stories outside of myself, and often in histories that have not been brought to light.”  Her works are praised less for their narrative strength than for the lyricism of her writing (which one reviewer noted “arguably serves as a protective shield against a clear-eyed assessment of their structure.”)  The new script, she said, is based on a story “that was actually told to me” and she thought, “I must write a play about this story someday.”  Some years later, when French producer Anne Terrail (granddaughter of Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros.) commissioned her to write a new play, she returned to the dark tale she’d heard.  (Night is a Room was first read in English in Paris, but not produced there.) 

Though Wallace acknowledges that she’s “not part of the mainstream” of American dramatists and has “never had what one would call a big ‘hit,’” her work is produced in the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East.  Her produced plays include (alongside those staged at Signature) In the Heart of America, Slaughter City, One Flea Spare, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, Things of Dry Hours, The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, and The Hard Weather Boating Party.  Her adaptation of Birdy premièred in London in 1997; in 2009, One Flea Spare was made a permanent part of the repertoire of the Comédie-Française.  Films for which Wallace wrote or co-wrote the screenplays include Lawn Dogs, The War Boys, Flying Blind (with Bruce McLeod).  The playwright has won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice), Joseph Kesselring Prize, Fellowship of Southern Writers Drama Award, an Obie Award (for One Flea Spare, 1996-97), and the 2012 Horton Foote Award for most promising new American play (The Liquid Plain).  She’s also a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 and a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts development grant.  In 2013, Wallace received the inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for drama and in 2015, an Arts and Letters Award in Literature.  Wallace has taught English literature, poetry, and playwriting at Yale University, UCLA, University of Iowa, Illinois State University, Merrimack College, Hampshire College, American University of Cairo, and Vrije University of Amsterdam, among other institutions.  

Night, set in Leeds, England, tells the story of Liana and Marcus, who have a marriage that seems idyllic.  Liana’s a 43-year-old über-competent account executive in an advertising firm and Marcus, about to turn 40, is an admired and popular history teacher at a girls’ school.  In the opening scene, Liana, chicly dressed in all black, is paying a call on Doré, a  dowdy 55-year-old housekeeper who’s lived in the same house for 41 years.  (Clint Ramos’s spot-on costumes delineate the class distinctions among the characters instantly.)  She’s grown used to an isolated existence in her modest home, single and without any family.  The surprise, which Wallace teases out in controlled blasts of information, is that Doré is Marcus’s birth mother; she was forced to give him up for adoption when she was 15 and hasn’t seen him since.  What Liana wants is to effect a reunion between her husband, whose adoptive parents are deceased, and his mother as a surprise for his 40th birthday.  Doré balks at first—“It’s not a good idea,” advises Doré, especially not as a surprise—but Liana insists she’s worked it all out.  She won’t be present, however: better to let mother and son meet privately for the first time.  

The actual reunion takes place between the first and second scenes of act one.  By all indications, it was a smashing success, though Liana is entirely outside this loop; three months later, Liana and Marcus are waiting for Doré to pay her first visit to their house.  The living room is practically empty of furnishings because the house is being redecorated—only a couple of chairs and a small side table are available for the couple and their guest; everything else is in storage.  (The carefully detailed sets were by Rachel Hauck.)  Doré is not the only topic of conversation while the couple wait; they talk about their adult daughter, Dominique, who’s in Chicago studying art, and their respective jobs (it turns out that Marcus doesn’t like his teaching gig as much as Liana thought).  And they take a break in the chat for an explicit (though clothed) interlude of spontaneous sex.  (More about this I won’t say in case anyone has a chance to see the play in the future.  I will, however, observe that Night is the third play I’ve seen this season in which a man gets a woman off on stage—two orally and one manually—with both participants fully clothed.  Is this a trend?).  In any case, Doré arrives, nicely (though not elegantly, by any means) dressed and coiffed this time, and Liana serves tea and cake. 

It doesn’t take long before it becomes obvious that everything’s not quite what Liana had predicted from her little surprise, and mother and son reveal that they’ve been spending almost all the time since the meeting together and that they seem to have an awful lot in common beneath the surface—dreams and longings and obsessions.  (Doré’s taken to calling her son Jonathan, the name she gave him at birth, because, she asserts, he prefers it.)  Again, I don’t want to go into detail here, but my introduction may be a broad hint at what develops by the end of the hour-and-a-quarter first act.  (Apparently the press were all asked not to mention this subject in their reviews—but I’m not the press and this isn’t a review.)  I’ll only say now that the seemingly perfect marriage of Marcus and Liana dissolves in acrimony, yelling, and recriminations.  (If Dominique hadn’t telephoned in the middle of the scene, I might have assumed this was a latter-day redux of George and Martha of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? moved ahead a half century and transported to England.) 

Act two takes place at a funeral home just after the memorial.  The chamber is filled with empty chairs all facing stage left where a wooden coffin sits on a stand.  My assumption—and I suspect most other viewers’ as well—was that Doré had died in the intervening years (it’s six, we learn).  That turns out to be incorrect, but I won’t say who has died for the same reasons I wouldn’t reveal Wallace’s other surprises.  The shorter second act, I will tell you, is a confrontation between the two survivors that vacillates between bitter anger and resignation, but comes to no real conclusion or resolution.  Wallace constructs a fraught situation in act one, which struck me as contrived to start with, and then leaves it unresolved in a frustrating ending—the play really just stops—that competes with the finale of TV’s The Sopranos.

My only recollection of my reaction to One Flea Spare is that I didn’t really get what Wallace was saying.  That’s how I left Night is a Room as well.  I just said that I found the set-up contrived—I mean, who in her right mind would spring an unannounced meeting with his estranged birth mother on her husband as a surprise birthday gift?—but that’s not all that bothered me.  After the second scene of act one, which ends with the split of Liana and Marcus, the whole of act two seemed tacked-on.  This is especially so since Wallace didn’t tie anything up with the second act; it was more a coda than a conclusion.  The drama ended at intermission.  (It seems that Night wouldn’t be the first time Wallace wrote a run-on play: she explains that she jettisoned the entire third act of The Liquid Plain when it was accepted for production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival after Rauch, who was to direct the première at OSF, told the playwright he didn’t like it.  Wallace admitted that “the third act wasn’t necessary at all.”)  As we left the theater, and Diana wondered what might have impelled Wallace to write Night is a Room; I said that it felt to me as if she’d either run across a mention of GSA or had heard a story like the one she composed and decided it’d make a good basis for a play—as opposed to having an idea of something to say and finding a vehicle that could express it.  It turns out my second hypothesis was what had happened—and it shows: the story came first; the point came as an afterthought (if at all).  Usually, I’ve found, that doesn’t work so well.  QED.

Rauch, whose previous work I haven’t seen (he brought All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson that starred Bryan Cranston, to Broadway from OSF last year, where it had débuted two years earlier), did a creditable job with the staging, keeping the two-hour, two-act play moving even without a great deal of action, and for the most part, he coaxed good performances from his three-person cast.  The fact that little of either the circumstances or the characters was fully believable was more Wallace’s fault than Rauch’s—although he wasn’t able in the end to paper over the deficiencies. 

It didn’t help that, with the play set in Leeds, a blue-collar city in Yorkshire north of London, Rauch had a cast of American actors.  Even with the help of dialect coach Charlotte Fleck (who worked on Signature’s other two Wallace productions as well), none of the three managed a believable or consistent accent.  As Liana, whom the writer says is the first role she’s written for an “upper-class woman,” Dagmara Dominczyk was going for proper Oxbridge speech and Bill Heck, as Marcus, was in the same ballpark (maybe that should be “cricket pitch”), while for Doré, Ann Dowd tried for a northern English accent.  (We’re somewhat familiar with Yorkshire accents from some of the many British series broadcast over here.  PBS’s popular series Downton Abbey, for instance, is set in Yorkshire so many of the servants and village residents speak in that accent.)  None of them quite got it, and what they did manage often slipped noticeably.  (I can’t see any dramatic reason to have set the play in Leeds.  Why not just Americanize the setting and ditch the accents altogether?)

Aside from the dialect problem, the acting was competent, with Dowd standing out both for the complexity of her character and for the way the actor depicted it.  I’d never seen Dowd on stage before (she also has quite a list of film and TV credits), but I gather from the buzz that she’s highly regarded and popular with both audiences and press; I can see why.  Doré is the kind of role that requires a good deal of character-actor skill to pull off.  She shifts from mousy and uncertain, seemingly lost and oblivious, to sharp and knowing, strong and even manipulative, and finally to commanding, almost imperious.  Dowd made it all entirely credible, while at the same time keeping the unforeshadowed developments surprising.  We may not be able to see the shifts coming, but when Dowd engineers them, they seem wholly natural—as if the character were a kind of living matryoshka doll discarding each outer persona to reveal a more self-confident one beneath.  (Most of the time, the bothersome accent issue isn’t even noticeable, overwhelmed by Dowd’s tour-de-force acting.)

Bill Heck seemed an ill fit for Marcus.  I remember him as the stand-in for playwright Horton Foote’s father in Signature’s monumental presentation of The Orphans’ Home Cycle in 2010 in which he was exceptional.  (Heck was also impressive as the sexually confused Mormon Republican in STC’s Angels in America later that same year.  I reported on both productions on ROT: 25 and 28 February 2010 and 11 December 2010, respectively.)  In Night, the actor just didn’t seem comfortable in the role and there was little chemistry between Heck’s Marcus and Dominczyk’s Liana, a couple who are supposed to have a sexually heated marriage long after the honeymoon.  (I can’t say there was much connection between Heck’s son and Dowd’s mother, either, but since that relationship is so peculiar to start with, I’m not sure what outward manifestations ought to have been revealed.)  The graphic sex interlude between the husband and wife, while having the sounds and actions of arousal and climax, seemed less erotic than Masters-and-Johnson clinical.  Dominczyk made a similar impression on me, though she may have had an excuse to some degree: the character, after her first scene with Doré, becomes a sort of observer/commentator as the two others spin off into a life of which Liana’s not part.  Still, I couldn’t help feeling that the play was being presented without emotion or subtext—it was all line delivery and surface behavior as if no one really understood what was going on with these people.  (I could buy that—after all, neither could I!)

Once again, there were surprising gaps in the press coverage of a new or significant play.  Missing this time around from the print outlets were both the New York Post and the Daily News; neither Newsday nor amNewYork ran reviews and neither did New York magazine.  The New York Times was on hand, however, and Laura Collins-Hughes dubbed Night is a Room a “strange, surprising, often funny” play which has “[c]arnality . . . at its core.”  After Wallace “tosses” her “small bomb” near the end of act one, Collins-Hughes reported, “the audience, too, will be stumbling to find its footing,” moving “from confused to startled to uncomfortable, yet game and curious.”  The Times reviewer also felt, however, “There is something a little bloodless and cerebral here, too: an intellectual experiment beneath the stormy passion.”  Though she was “grateful for . . . the excellent casting,” Collins-Hughes found that the “oddest, least satisfying thing about” the play was the ending, which “wraps things up far too neatly.” She concluded that “for us, ambiguity would have been more sating.”

In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky called Night a “strangely overwrought play” which “makes you wonder how much new there really is to say on the subject” of family relationships.  After Wallace’s characters engage in “uglier and uglier behavior for its own sake,” the Voice review-writer declared that the play “becomes a prolonged exercise in abjection,” concluding, ”Wallace’s insistence on testing the taboos in spousal and filial relationships eventually begins to feel oddly normative: an exaggerated wallowing that makes us long for the way things always were.”  The “Goings On About Town” reviewer of the New Yorker found Wallace’s script “clunky” and reported that it “seems determined to leave offstage precisely those moments that would have been most illuminating to see, resulting in too many recaps by way of impassioned dialogue and a consistent inability to convince.”  The New Yorker writer asserted that the “awkwardness is infectious.” Affecting Rauch’s direction which “opts for confessional realism” instead of “an embrace of the story’s inherent absurdity.”  (The reviewer also agreed with me that “the actors struggle with their Yorkshire accents.”)  In the end, the reviewer insisted that “the root fault lies in the words: too many of them, jammed with too many elaborate metaphors that fail to ignite.”

David Cote of Time Out New York determined, “Night is a Room faintly recalls Albee and Pinter’s cryptic, psychosexual puzzles, but Wallace carves out her own territory with rich, daring (if too often bathetic) language.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio wrote that Night is a Room “feels a lot like ersatz Albee,” referring to The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (a play about bestiality—which more than one reviewer referenced), but that Wallace’s play lacks “Albee’s stinging language or his biting cerebral assault on the moral standards of our smugly liberal society.”  Stasio reported, however, “The production values . . . are exceptionally fine under the detail-minded direction of Bill Rauch.”  The reviewer from Variety asserted, “Wallace writes with a kind of ecstatic lyricism, a love song to the sound of her own poetic voice,” but complained that despite some “beautiful” “individual images,” “the age-old conflict between mother and wife is reduced to a single blunt and literal metaphor.” 

The cyber reviewers were as mixed in their opinions as were their ink-stained colleagues.  On TheaterMania, David Gordon called Night is a Room “eyebrow-arching” and a “dark comedy” that reaches “new heights of salaciousness” in its tale of domestic lives thrown into shambles.  Nevertheless, said Gordon, “it still seems disappointingly ordinary.”  According to the TM reviewer, Night

is designed to make viewers experience great euphoria and deep pain, rife with frank discussions and uncomfortable depictions of sexual relations, as well as graphic violence . . . .  But even with long swaths of beautiful writing mixed in amid the inescapable pulpiness, Night Is a Room doesn’t really accomplish as much as it wants, nor does it feel particularly substantial. 

Though he felt the production was “drolly directed” and “consistently entertaining,” Gordon complained that “the second act wraps the piece up with too neat a bow for all the messiness that has transpired.”  He praised the “mordantly funny dialogue and a pair of stunning performances from Dominczyk and Dowd,” but, noting that a viewer shouted, “This is crazy,” twice during the performance, he concluded, “In the end, however, even ‘crazy’ has its limits.

New York Theater’s Jonathan Mandell described Night as “the most gratifying” of Wallace’s three-play residency at STC, but added the caveat: “but only for the first half.”  In Mandell’s assessment, Wallace sets up the shocking situation “in a long, well-done dramatic scene,” but then, “doesn’t seem to know where to go.”  After that, the NYT review-writer observed,The characters’ reactions are one-note; the remaining plot is uninteresting and pointlessly prolonged.”  In the end, he noted that “there is little light cast on our social mores or the human condition.”  Matthew Murray wrote of “the astonishing, breath-stealing landscape” depicted in Night is a Room on Talkin’ Broadway, describing the play as “a wasteland of shattered souls so complete, so unforgiving, that your response isn’t terror or revulsion, but in fact denial.”  With “sublime” acting, Murray felt, “Night Is a Room will be one of the year’s most talked-about plays, in addition to likely the most disturbing seen at a mainstream New York venue.”  Nonetheless, he saw that “it can’t maintain its power for its full two-hour running time.”  The TB writer’s final analysis was, “Because Night Is a Room gives us so much to chew on, the easy-to-swallow ending is imbued with a bitter aftertaste that stops just short of ruining the five-course dinner that precedes it.”

On New York Theatre Guide, Sarah Downs, dubbing the play “thought-provoking, gripping,” asserted that Wallace “has written a story that is entirely new” and the reviewer christened it “drama with a capital D” because “Wallace mines [the] premise for everything it’s got, and then some.”  Further, Downs added, “[A]ll three actors deliver, giving robust, textured performances,” though the reviewer thought that Dominczyk’s Liana “stands out.”  Director Rauch, she wrote, “demonstrates a mastery of working with powerful material, shepherding its varied elements with assured simplicity,” and unlike many of her colleagues, Downs felt, “There is no loss of integrity” from act one to act two—even though she, too, found that the ending “feels abrupt.”  As her final word, the NYTG reviewer wrote that “you are caught between Can’t. Watch. and Must. Look., but resistance is futile.”  Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp felt that Wallace wasn’t “adding anything especially insightful to the issues she’s tackling” in Night is a Room despite the show having been “handily” mounted by Rauch and his designers and the cast having delivered “all-out, no-holds-barred performances.”  In spite of that praise for the actors, Sommer added, “I can’t say that their characters drew me in enough to engage me fully or make me sympathize strongly with any of them.”

Night is a Room “is so heavy-handedly written and loaded with bombastically dramatic situations,” reported Michael Dale on Broadway World, “that . . . a great deal of the audience was laughing out loud during scenes that were surely meant to be taken seriously.”  Dale even went further with his disappointment: “The fact that director Bill Rauch’s cast is so good, and so honestly committed to the material, only makes the script’s clunkiness more apparent.”  On TheaterScene, Joel Benjamin declared, “Naomi Wallace has fashioned an outrageously ridiculous, brilliantly written play that constantly and happily slaps the audience in its face with one coup de theatre after another.”  Benjamin continued: “That Night is a Room succeeds as well as it does is thanks to Wallace’s scintillating way with words and her ability to fashion clear, if slightly clichéd, characters.”  Comparing Night to Greek tragedy, TS’s reviewer characterized the play as “far more playful than that genre of dramatic writing, going more for shock value than moral edification.”  Praising Rauch for directing “with total comprehension,” the review-writer concluded, “The pleasure of Night Is a Room is watching these three expert actors speak Wallace’s rich, insightful language which veers from wittily highfalutin to excitingly vulgar.”


16 December 2015

'Incident at Vichy'

[I had a serious computer malfunction just as I was starting to compose this report on Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy.  It resulted in an extensive delay and I had to shuffle the line-up on Rick On Theater and push this play report and the one to follow back more than a week.  I apologize to ROT readers and I hope you all derive some benefit from the belated reports anyway.  Incident is still running, but only for a few more days, but Naomi Wallace’s Night is a Room will have closed by the time I get that report posted.  It’s always my intention to get my performance reports on line while the shows are still in theaters, but circumstances have thwarted me this time.  Stuff happens.  ~Rick]

My usual theater companion, Diana, and I met at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row Saturday night, 21 November, to see the current revival of Arthur Miller’s 1964 World War II drama Incident at VichyIncident’s not a frequently-mounted play, partly because of its large cast (17 men at Signature, 21 in the original) and partly because it’s a very talky play with many earnest monologues and stichomythic passages about politics, psychology, philosophy, and morality.  I think the play’s largely overlooked today, however, because Miller’s subject—the arrest and internment of Jews and other disenfranchised peoples in Third Reich territories—is seen as old news now, 70 years after World War II ended.  So, why revive this play, and why now?  Does it have anything to say to us today?  Was Miller, a fierce defender of freedom of speech and expression, freedom of belief, and civil and human rights, writing about something more lasting, more continuous, than the lethal anti-Semitism of the Nazis and their French collaborators?  Signature is presenting an Arthur Miller play this season as part of its recognition of the playwright’s centennial, but is Incident at Vichy still relevant?

While Incident retains its structural and dramaturgical problems—it is talky (Miller added a mass escape attempt for the 1966 London version which I suspect was an effort to insert some physical action)—and Miller, who covered some war-crimes trials for the Herald Tribune, used the play as a soapbox for his thoughts on all kinds of questions that were pertinent in the aftermath of Adolf Eichmann’s trial and execution in Israel for crimes against humanity (1961 and 1962, respectively) and John Kennedy’s assassination (Incident opened almost exactly a year after the president’s death) and on the eve of all-out war in Southeast Asia (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by congress four months before the play débuted).  Civil unrest was about to burst forth in America, the far-right John Birch Society and the racist Ku Klux Klan were on the rise, and violence against war protesters and another population of disenfranchised people was increasing.  (Miller even has one of his characters state baldly that “every nation has condemned somebody because of his race, including the Americans and what they do to Negroes”—a bold indictment in 1942, perhaps, but not in 1964.)  The Cold War was heating up (the Cuban Missile Crisis had only occurred a little over two years earlier) and it looked like the ground was being laid for a redux of the repression and authoritarianism of the 1930s and ’40s.  Given Miller’s predilections, a play warning us that the recent past might predict a potential future if we don’t heed the signs and the dangers was perfectly understandable.  Indeed, in his review of the première of Incident at Vichy, New York Times reviewer Howard Taubman declared, “Arthur Miller has written a moving play, a searching play, one of the most important plays of our time.” 

I know that sounds a little (okay, a lot) hyperbolic 50 years on, but Incident’s not so dated as some detractors insist.  It’s a history play—it was even when Miller wrote it (much like his Crucible)—and as such, it has things to say to us in 2015 just as it did to the première-goers in 1964.  It wasn’t that long ago that we in this beacon of democracy rounded up hundreds of “unlawful combatants” and locked them away for years at Guantanamo Bay without charges or trial (isn’t that the definition of a concentration camp?), sent some accused terrorists into “extraordinary rendition” in countries that routinely practice torture, and used “enhanced interrogation” techniques on prisoners in this very country.  Didn’t we pass a Patriot Act that authorizes warrantless government intrusion into some of our most private transactions?  And didn’t congress and the president empower the NSA to gather immense amounts of our personal data secretly and without a warrant?  Speaking of warrants, don’t we have a secret court that issues them for clandestine electronic eavesdropping (and has never denied an application)? 

Just this month, a leading candidate for the U.S. presidential nomination proposed closing our borders to all Muslims, while another announced that a Muslim should never be President of the United States.  Several candidates have called for a religious test for refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq, screening out the Muslims; at least one politician proposed allowing only Christians in.  That comes mighty close to the Nazis’ exclusionary race laws.  Since these ideas have been greeted with considerable approval by some voters, it could sure look like we’re on the road to totalitarianism.  (I confess, ever since the department was established, I’ve always been uneasy with how close the name Homeland Security is to the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit—Ministry for State Security, the notorious Stasi—and the Soviet KGB—Komityet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti, Committee for State Security.) 

So why this play and why now, as dramaturgs are trained to ask.  In addition to Miller’s 100th birthday, all the circumstances I noted are abroad in the land right now.  Incident at Vichy recounts a (fictional) 1942  round-up in the capital of Unoccupied France of suspected people ostensibly to have their identity papers checked.  The full horror of the Nazi deportations and executions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists and socialists, and the mentally and physically handicapped had not yet been exposed to the world.  Nether had the extent of the willful collaboration by the Vichy French, which had its own concentration camps where deportees were held until shipped east  to places like Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, and Dachau.  Those in danger who’d heard the rumors didn’t believe them.  Few ordinary Germans or French who weren’t among the suspect peoples took any action or raised a protest; some even willingly participated.  Only one or two of Miller’s characters in Incident suspect that anything more than what they’d been told—that their papers were being checked—was about to happen.  This is analogous to the situation in which we now find ourselves.  Most Americans (though the number is dwindling) refuse to believe that Donald Trump will be nominated for president, or that if he is, he can win the office.  In spite of the acclaim received by proposals to shut the country’s doors to one religious group, most American pundits don’t think such an act can happen.  Even though President Obama moved to close Guantanamo Bay prison camp, states across the country and legislators in congress moved to prevent it.  Hatred and fear of Muslims (and anybody that looks like them) is widespread and has led to violence.  The target in Incident may be Jews for the most part (one man’s a Gypsy and another’s a Marxist), but we’ve seen the population of the despised group shift from era to era, and right now it’s Muslims, so the play’s fundamental point is not just still valid, but current.  (“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew; / Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”)

Miller (1915-2005) was the writer-in-residence at the Signature Theatre Company for its 1997-98 season (The American Clock, 1980; The Last Yankee, 1991; I Can’t Remember Anything, 1987; The Pussycat & the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man, radio play – 1941; Mr. Peter’s Connections, world première – 1998). STC’s revival of Incident began previews on the Irene Diamond Stage on 27 October under the direction of Michael Wilson (Orphans’ Home Cycle; see my report on 25 and 28 February 2010).  The production opened on 15 November and is scheduled to close on 20 December (extended twice from 6 December).  It’s a 90-minute, one-act play about ten men detained by German officers and French police in 1942.  After being picked up on the streets of Vichy, France, the capital of the Unoccupied Zone, six men and a teenaged boy wait in a detainment center, wondering why they’ve been detained.  (After France was defeated by the German army in 1940, the Nazis let a carefully overseen puppet regime administer southern France, known officially as the French State, while Germany occupied and directly ruled Paris and the north.  In 1942, however, after the Allied invasion of largely Vichy-controlled North Africa, Germany began taking a more direct role in administering Unoccupied France and enforcing its race laws.)  None of the men have been told why they were brought in to this makeshift detainment center, but it’s clear most of them are Jewish. 

The men begin to act out of panic and fear; they remain aloof from one another at first, not wanting to take a chance one of them might be an informer or, just as bad for the rest, an actual criminal who could pull them down with him.  Neither the German officers nor the French police say anything to the detainees.  Bayard (Alex Morf) tries to convince the excitable Lebeau (Jonny Orsini), an artist, to calm down while Marchand (John Procaccino), a self-important businessman, and Monceau (Derek Smith), an actor, insist this is a routine identity check.  Still, Lebeau is convinced the Germans will kill them.  The French Police Captain (AJ Cedeño); Professor Hoffman (Brian Cross), a Nazi scholar of “racial anthropology”—he apparently goes about measuring the noses of captives—from the Race Institute; and two detectives (Alec Shaw, Curtis Billings) enter with the Old Jew (Jonathan Hadary), Leduc (Darren Pettie), a psychoanalyst, and Von Berg (Richard Thomas).  (None of the characters, except Von Berg and Ferrand, the café owner, is ever referred to by name in the play.)  

Little by little, the prisoners begin to talk and hypothesize among themselves, and a little cohesion starts to generate.  It’s not actual solidarity yet; each man is still leery of the others and focusing in his own circumstance.  Marchand is ushered into the off-stage office and returns with a pass to leave.  Meanwhile, Bayard, a railroad electrician, tells the others about Jews being transported by railroad car to concentration camps in Poland where they’re worked to death.  (Though Vichy France had its own “detention camps,” among them Camp Drancy, Camp de Rivesaltes, Camp Gurs, and Camp Vernet, few people knew what awaited the “undesirables” who’d been rounded up and incarcerated there.  Rumors, however, were beginning to spread.)  Monceau argues that the Germans wouldn’t senselessly kill the Jews since audiences applauded his performances so much when he played in Germany, but Von Berg, an Austrian prince, insists that many of the Germans were once cultivated people but that Nazism has coarsened them.  Monceau insists they’ll be fine as long as their papers are in order and the others anxiously examine their documents.  It’s very Kafkaesque and frightening—especially since we know what they barely suspect.  The Marxist Bayard gets irritated by Lebeau’s frenzy and insists that they can’t react personally to this situation because they’re a part of history. 

Café-owner Ferrand (Demosthenes Chrysan) brings coffee to the officers, and as he leaves, he tells the waiter (David Abeles), his employee, that he overheard the detectives talk of burning people in furnaces.  In response, Leduc, formerly a French army officer, suggests that three men could overpower the guard (Quinlan Corbett) at the door, but no one’s willing to join him; compliance with the authorities offers a chance of release while rebellion seems to ensure death.  Meanwhile, the Gypsy (Evan Zes) and Bayard are both interrogated, but neither returns.  Monceau refuses to believe that the Germans are burning Jews in furnaces, but Von Berg and Leduc both believe that man is truly that atrocious.  When the waiter’s turn comes, he tries to run away and must be thrown into the office.  The Wehrmacht Major (James Carpinello), a regular army officer wounded in combat, argues with the Professor about their interrogation methods.   Feeling this duty is beneath him and that this kind of assignment should be left to the SS, the Major takes a walk during which questioning is suspended.  The boy (Jonathan Gordon) offers to help Leduc in his escape attempt, but Leduc believes it’s fruitless without the aid of Monceau, the only other able-bodied man; but the actor still insists the Germans are incapable of mass exterminations, showing how the Nazis could perpetrate the Holocaust for so long, protected by denial and complicity.  Leduc and Monceau argue about racial laws and Von Berg tells about the Jewish musicians that were killed in Austria—the Nazi officer in charge of the detail had waited to listen to the rehearsal before taking the musicians away—as proof that the Germans would indeed endeavor to exterminate the Jews.

Accepting his fate, the boy asks Von Berg, whom they all expect to be released, to return his mother’s wedding ring which he was trying to pawn for food when he was arrested.  As Leduc and the boy decide to escape, the Major returns, intoxicated, and advises them against the action.  The Major and Leduc argue because Leduc wants the Major to help them escape, but the Major insists it will not matter as he sees a future where human beings are insignificant.  Lebeau, Monceau, and the boy are each questioned one by one, and none of them returns.  When the Old Jew ignores his summons to the interrogation room, the Police Captain drags him into the office by his arms and beats him.  During this, Leduc asks Von Berg to tell his wife about his arrest, and the prince asks that they part as friends; Leduc, however, refuses until Von Berg accepts that he’s partly complicit in the Nazi horrors because he’s done nothing to change things.  The Professor interrogates Von Berg, releasing him with a pass which Von Berg gives to Leduc, now the only one of the original 10 left, and insists the psychoanalyst flee.  Even though it’s an empty gesture since he will soon be recaptured (and Von Berg will certainly be punished as well), Leduc goes.  The Professor, the Captain, and the detectives rush out of the office to find Leduc gone and Von Berg alone in the detention room; the Major and Von Berg stare at each other without comprehension.

Miller asserted that he wrote Incident at Vichy to examine “the anomie and paralysis before the knowledge of mass destruction,” which apparently he was convinced were once again on the horizon because “the same questions haunt us” when he turned to the play as were present during the war and the Holocaust.  I imagine the playwright would say they’re abroad again in our own time.  According to the Signature’s own publicity, the play reveals “a shared humanity . . . through debate, dissent, and compassion.”  Nonetheless, Incident played only 99 performances (some reports say only 32) after it opened at Greenwich Village’s ANTA Washington Square Theatre on 3 December 1964.  The production (part of a repertory that also included Miller’s After The Fall, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling, and Molière’s Tartuffe), directed by Harold Clurman, was mounted by the newly formed Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center.  (Hal Holbrook played the Wehrmacht Major, David Wayne portrayed Von Berg, and Joseph Wiseman was Leduc; Pierre Epstein and Tony Lo Bianco played unidentified prisoners, roles that were omitted in the STC revival.  The set was by the great Boris Aronson.)  It was neither a critical nor box-office success.  A London production, starring Alec Guinness as Von Berg, Anthony Quayle as Leduc, and Nigel Davenport as Monceau, played at the Phoenix Theatre in 1966 and Miller adapted his script for a TV broadcast on PBS directed by Stacy Keach and starring Andrew Robinson (the Major), Burt Freed (Marchand), Harris Yulin (Leduc), Richard Jordan (Von Berg), and René Auberjonois (Monceau) in 1973.  The only other professional New York City staging was in March-April 2009 by the Off-Broadway group The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row. 

Dramatically and thematically, Miller’s Incident at Vichy isn’t about the fate of the prisoners; we already know, as did the original audiences in the ’60s, what happens to them sooner or later.  (Even if some of the men manage to escape the detention room, they’ll most likely be caught, as Von Berg points out, and even if some do get to safety, many others just like them will be transported to concentration and death camps over the ensuing three years of the Third Reich.)  What Miller’s exploring, of course, is how these ten men of varying backgrounds, ages, and philosophies respond to their circumstances and one another—and what we can learn from observing them do so.  It’s interesting to note that in Miller’s original stage directions, the detainees are all sitting in line on the same bench when the scene opens.  (Clurman, in his director’s notes, describes the opening tableau as “one in which the characters remain immobile—arrayed as if in a ‘memorial tablet’ or ‘frieze’ in commemoration of the dead.”)  Michael Wilson has them all separated in different chairs, stools, and bits of floor, scattered haphazardly around the room.  Clurman’s staging emphasized the commonality of the group, even though they don’t acknowledge it yet, showing that they’re all in the same boat and, since they were almost certainly ordered to sit that way, under the thumb of the German authorities and their Vichy police collaborators.  In Wilson’s view, however, this is a random assortment of individuals who seem to have nothing in common and, what’s more, are wary of each other.  Though both attitudes change as the play develops, I think the separate-coming-together (out of many, one?) makes the stronger and more appropriate point, especially for the world as it is in 2015. 

The set, designed by Jeff Cowe and lit by David Lander, is an obviously disused building that might have been a warehouse with scattered debris, discarded papers, and decrepit bits of furniture strewn about.  It’s a gray plaster-and-metal basement room as the window are high up the walls and, later, we see the wheels and undercarriages of trucks dispatched to search for Leduc.  (The projection on the newspaper-covered windows is by Rocco DiSanti.) The office and interrogation rooms are stage left (all we see when the door opens to let someone out or usher someone in is a tiny glimpse of a document-strewn desk and back wall) and the barred gate from the outside, presumably a below-grade passage from the street, is up right.  The sentry is out of sight, presumably at the top of the stairs leading from the passageway up to the street to guard the entrance to the detention center.  It’s suitably grim and spiritless, like a mid-20th-century dungeon.  Cowe’s design effectively interprets Clurmans description: “Something hard, mysterious, ‘Kafka-like’ . . . .  A ‘no-man’s land enclosure.”  (Miller’s first idea for the setting, according to Clurman, was a police station, but he changed the designation to the current, ambiguous “a place of detention.”)  Kafka’s an apt image for the beginning of Incident, but I don’t think it would be too great a stretch to perceive in this room an evocation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s setting for No Exit, his play about hell.  There are, in fact, parallels in the themes of Kafka’s expressionistic The Trial, Sartre’s existential No Exit, and Miller’s naturalistic Incident at Vichy.  I’d even suggest there’s a little of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—which had opened in London and the U.S., turning the theater world on its ear, less than 10 years before Incident premièred on Broadway—embedded in Incident

Among other implied references in Incident are intimations of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment on obedience to authority figures at Yale in 1961 and political theorist Hannah Arendt’s reporting of the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker as compiled in 1963’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  I believe it’s all these references that keep Incident at Vichy relevant and compelling so many decades after the actual history on which the play’s based (just the way that The Crucible remains relevant today even though it was written in response to the McCarthyite commie hunts of the 1950s).  Milgram’s proof that even average and fundamentally ethical people can be persuaded to commit torture under the cover of authority and Arendt’s revelation that evil was as banal as self-interest, however benighted, and that under the right circumstances, anyone might  perpetrate horrendous acts.  Kafka famously depicted a prisoner facing trial for an unknown crime under circumstances he doesn’t know; Sartre portrayed hell as a collection of ordinary people who haven’t taken responsibility for their behavior; in Godot, Beckett looks at what people do when they’re waiting for something unknown to happen and facing the dilemma of not knowing the best action to take.  Miller’s characters exhibit various incarnations of these same issues—and we continue to face them today, as Miller himself observed when he wrote the play.

The performances are uniformly fine, with several standouts among the cast.  Like other shows on which I’ve reported recently, Incident is an ensemble work; all the characters, especially the 10 detainees, must form a universe together in which they all exist and play their parts, and director Wilson guided his company to this achievement thoroughly.  But while this isn’t a star vehicle, several performances are notable principally because the roles are pivotal.  At the center of the drama are Darren Pettie’s psychoanalyst, Leduc, and Richard Thomas’s Austrian aristocrat, Von Berg.  They are the intellectuals of the group, the thinkers and reasoners, and their debate about the nature of Man and his ability to do evil is the main point of Miller’s play.  (This is where Arendt’s idea is most prominently visible.)  Pettie is logical but at the same time passionate about his understanding of the Nazis and what they’re capable of and because he’s certain that all the prisoners’ fates will be imprisonment or worse, they must fight and resist.  But Thomas’s Von Berg, who manages to be refined and even genteel without being prissy, still offers a rational rebuttal to Leduc’s more muscular arguments.  The men learn something from each other, and in the end, it is they who take some action, even if it’s only symbolic.

Monceau, the actor, represents the willfully blind, the Jews who wouldn’t see what was happening around them until it was too late.  Derek Smith makes him both foolish and sympathetic at once—a fool because he won’t recognize what’s before his eyes and a sympathetic figure because he’s so absolutely sincere in his belief that no people who love music and art as much as the Germans do could commit atrocities.  (This is where Milgram comes into play.)  Smith, on whom I recently reported in “Desire,” last 26 September, and earlier in “Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2011),” 19 January 2012, manages to thread his way between the two aspects of his character without becoming a buffoon or a figure of ridicule.  As the Major, James Carpinello reveals both his fundamental humanity, which we see being subdued by his fealty to the world in which he finds himself (here both Milgram and Arendt operate) and his frustration, even anger, at being forced into the position of having to carry out such duties.  Other effective turns are provided by Jonny Orsini as the painter, Lebeau, whose agitation is the catalyst that gets the prisoners to examine their fate and their options; Jonathan Gordon’s Boy, whose poignant pleas for someone to get word to his mother what has happened to him and his willingness to back Leduc’s escape play are the most touching moments of the production.  I should also add a word about Jonathan Hadary as the Old Jew: he speaks almost not a word—among the hardest things for an actor to do—except a Hebrew prayer when he’s called in for interrogation and yet expresses bottomless endurance and resignation.  He dresses in a fur hat and a long, black coat and wears a full beard (the costumes, all in a subdued palette so as not to enliven the grim cell, are by David C. Woolard) so that he could be taken for no one but a Jew, causing one of the others to remark that he was just asking to be picked up.  In a way, he represents the “Other,” all those peoples who’ve been the targets of “ethnic cleansing” by any regime at any time in history—including our own.  “Each man has his Jew,” declares Leduc, not exempting the Jews themselves; “the black, the yellow, the white, it is the other.”

I don’t know if there’s a cut-back on theater coverage in New York City, the nation’s theater capital, but it seems that several regular outlets declined to cover Incident at Vichy.  Dailies for which I couldn’t find reviews on line included the Daily News and the New York Post, and weeklies the Village Voice and Variety.  Linda Winer called the STC revival, “one of the few rarities in our unofficial Miller centennial year,” a “thoughtful, straightforward, perhaps unavoidably heavyhanded production” in Long Island’s Newsday.  Those “yearning for a bolt of moral certitude,” Winer asserted, will find in Incident “an honorable place to start,” for although “Miller’s answer here may strain credibility,” the Newsday reviewer felt, “he certainly asked the right questions.”  In amNewYork, Matt Windman described the show as “a superb, highly compelling revival,” even though he found that a “great chunk of the dialogue resembles a long-winded treatise on psychology and ethics.”  “Nevertheless,” added Windman, “the play is suspenseful throughout” due to its “excellent ensemble cast.”  “‘Incident at Vichy . . . is a creakily earnest one-act play,” asserted Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, in which the characters “make speeches, some of them craven, others noble, and all written in the well-known Miller manner.”  Director Wilson, though, “ratchets up the dramatic tension much higher than you’d think it could possibly go, and his ensemble cast is superior,” reported the WSJ review-writer.  (Like most of his colleagues in the press, Teachout singled out Richard Thomas for special praise.)  In the end, however, said Teachout, “Miller undercuts their effect, such as it is, with a speciously uplifting denouement that fails to convince.”    

Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times wrote that “it would be nice to report that ‘Incident at Vichy’ . . . still might be regarded in [a] shining light,” but lamented that “the respectable if sometimes stolid revival . . . reveals, the passing of the decades has perhaps inevitably dimmed the play’s power.”  Isherwood explained:

What’s appealing about this rare chance to see “Incident at Vichy” is the opportunity that it affords to hear Miller’s ethical insights and piercing intelligence resounding with such unbridled forthright eloquence.  What’s less appealing?  Well, all that resounding eloquence.

The characters, the Timesman complained, “seem like ambulatory megaphones for one point of view or another.”  The reviewer, who objected to presenting the play on the large Irene Diamond stage instead of a smaller, “more oppressive” space, reported that “eventually . . . the play sometimes sags with wordy, articulate debates.”  Incident, Isherwood observed, “tends to billboard its moral arguments.” 

The New York Jewish press had its say as well.  In the Jewish Week, Ted Merwin noted that Miller “rarely dealt as explicitly with the world’s collective responsibility for the Jews of Europe as in his 1964 one-act play.”  Wilson’s revival, Merwin stated, “aims to banish [the] perception [that Incident is a minor Miller play] . . . and . . . deserves to take its place in the canon of major Miller works.”  The JW journalist quoted director Wilson’s description of the play as a “serious thriller” and a “spine-tingling and suspenseful” evening of theater and reported, “Two Jewish couples who attended a recent preview told him that the play had ‘ripped through them—their whole bodies were shaking at the end.’”  “The trouble with a play like Arthur Miller’s ‘An Incident at Vichy,’” wrote Forward culture reporter Anna Katsnelson, “is the ubiquitous presence of Holocaust narrative” in our popular culture.  Describing the STC revival of Incident as a “talky, fast-moving production,” Katsnelson asserted that it’s a worthy addition because it adds to our understanding of what Michael Wilson dubbed “arguably the greatest atrocity ever to unfold in the history of our civilization.”  “It will inject you with a high dose of dramatic adrenaline, and make a great feast of ideas for your après-theater discussion,” she predicted.  Katsnelson further observed that “the events portrayed in it might seem absurd, but the drama is all too real.”  Noting that the “hero” of Incident is not one of Miller’s Jewish captives but the Austrian blue-blood, the Forward reviewer concluded, “The play’s universalist message remains as relevant as ever—Miller suggests that heroes, victims, and oppressors can be found in members of all nationalities.”

“In Incident at Vichy,” wrote Jesse Green in New York magazine, “. . . the ideas—about complicity in evil, aesthetics vs. politics, and the limits of solidarity—get loose from the form, a problem the worthy revival now playing at the Signature Theatre unfortunately exacerbates.”  Green added:

Miller’s urgency to preach busts through the limitations of the premise and emerges in full but nontheatrical glory.  The remaining characters (with one exception) speak more and more like pamphlets, and, until that trick ending, the play as a play seems to slink away in chagrin.

“But this is Arthur Miller,” the New York reviewer acknowledged, “so the pamphleteering is beautifully done.”  Green even allows that the play might be “gripping, under the right circumstances,” though he felt that the STC production “only reaches that level a few times . . . .”  Green thought that distributing the captives randomly around the stage was a mistake and he also found the acting lacked the specificity “to suggest complete histories, even where Miller doesn’t provide much opportunity.”  The one exception is Jonathan Hadary as the Old Jew, who “encapsulates a whole lifetime” even though he practically never says a word.  In conclusion, Green proclaimed, “To say that Incident at Vichy is not a perfect play (or that this production is not ideal) is not too much of a criticism.  After all, he meant it less as an aesthetic object than as an alarm, two decades after liberation of the camps, that the world had changed irrevocably.”  In the New Yorker, Hilton Als is of a similar opinion, writing, “Miller saw the world in a grid: good was good, bad was bad, and the gray areas of existence were either unexplored in his work or handled clumsily.  This weakness is especially clear in ‘Incident at Vichy.’”  He had good words to say, however, about the actors’ work.

The entertainment press were of mixed opinions.  In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman deemed that Michael Wilson “directed somberly,” helping to “illustrate why” Incident, “though sometimes stirring,” is rarely staged.  What Feldman thought has “aged least well about” the play is the dialogue which, he reported, “often sounds like an essay or a lecture”—“it sounds like a playwright writing something other than a play.”  Overall, though, Feldman judged, “Incident at Vichy gives an airing to still-timely concerns.”  The man from TONY declared, “To modern Americans grappling with questions of privilege and responsibility, in relation to disadvantaged groups in America or abroad, the play remains a thrown gauntlet.”  The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck asserted, “Incident at Vichy reflects both Miller’s strengths and weaknesses”: it has “powerful themes . . ., tautly dramatized and well-defined.  But the play is also talky and didactic, its themes expressed too baldly.”  Nonetheless, Scheck found that the revival “has a gripping cumulative power that builds to a surprising conclusion, which is at once uplifting and tragic” due in part to Wilson’s “highly effective” directing and the ensemble, which “is mostly excellent” (despite a couple of questionable casting choices). 

The cyber press was out in full force this time (after some recent productions they seemed to have shunned).  On Broadway World, Michael Dale reported that Wilson directed “a fine and sensitively-acted production” of Incident  for STC on “an imposing” set by Cowe.  Dale concluded, “ It can be an uncomfortable play to watch, but it’s the discomfort that makes it good theatre.”   New York Theatre Guide’s Tulis McCall characterized the play as starting off as “a breathing organism of men on the edge of terror” and then “succumbs to a heavy handed presentation of what I believe was Miller’s deep dive into a contemporary abyss.”  Despite the horrifying circumstances, McCall found, “This cast, however, shows no real sign of fear.”  The NYTG writer went on to specify that “the cast has two jobs: to touch our hearts and feed our intellects,” and then explained:.

Because, however, they seem to have been guided into a no man’s land between these two fronts and told to stay put, they are hobbled.  They succeed [at] neither endeavor.  They end up stranded, neither here nor there.  As do we.  A disappointment indeed.

Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway reported that STC’s Incident is “a first-rate revival” of “the haunting universe of Arthur Miller’s” play.  Despite “an unremarkable premise and . . . a predetermined outcome,” Miller “unlocks no shortage of suspense and woe.”  Murray declared the script “intelligent playwriting that Wilson and a roundly capable, unglittering cast have treated with palpable care and affection.”  The TB reviewer admitted that “Miller allows himself a bit of moralizing, maybe even too much,” but “Wilson and his company navigate these [moments] well.”  His final assessment is: “Wilson's Incident at Vichy could scarcely feel more alive.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer dubbed the STC revival “s a high-tension 90 minutes” and “also one of the most satisfying and relevant dramas currently in any New York Theater.”  Praising Wilson’s direction, Sommer declared the cast “an extraordinarily effective ensemble”; “Director Wilson never lets the tension flag,” the CU review-writer reported, and her last word on the production was: “Don’t miss it.”  Calling the STC mounting “a lavish (if somewhat underwhelming) production” on TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart also attested that “ the visually striking results seem lacking in urgency.”  Stewart had difficulty with “Wilson's gorgeously rendered period production” because he felt it “seems too distant, too unique to cause 21st-century Americans to question the ways our lifestyles indirectly undergird oppression.”  He was ambivalent as to his overall judgment, affirming that on one hand, “While it occasionally feels like an essay repurposed as a drama . . ., this excellent cast breathes life into the author's extended musings . . . .” and then asserting, “Unfortunately, there is precious little sense of impending doom in this play.”  Suggesting that Incident may require “a pushier directorial voice,” Stewart deemed that “Wilson's faithful, by-the-book staging, however impressive, does little to offset the feeling that we're watching an elaborately decorated college seminar.”