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.” 


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