NEW YORK – The playwright Arthur Miller would have been 100 this past October, and the New York theater is celebrating his birthday with several productions. Off-Broadway, there is Mr. Miller's 1964 play “Incident at Vichy,” which ended its engagement at the Signature Theatre on Dec. 20. The Dutch director Ivo von Howe's minimalist version of his 1955 play “A View from the Bridge” is on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre through Feb. 21. In the spring, Mr. von Howe will take an iconoclastic look at another one of Mr. Miller's plays “The Crucible,” written in 1953, about a man charged with witchery in colonial times in Salem, Mass.
Mr. Miller’s “Incident at Vichy” is an incisive, curt and frightening 90-minute indictment of those deep-rooted human hatreds that made possible the Nazi madness of the 1930s and early 1940s. In arraigning all those who conspired in action, or did so by their silence with the anti-Semitism of World War II, it challenges not only the gentiles, but also the Jews themselves.
The play begins in a room full of tension. It is a grim waiting room of a building, as designed by Jeff Cowie, that looks like an impressive, war-wrecked station at which seven men sit waiting in silence and apprehension. The year is 1942 and the place is Vichy, headquarters of the French government that collaborated in submission to the Nazi conquerors.
Since the men are frightened and unsure of why they have been picked up by the police, they are wary of one another, but as the garrulous artist Lebeau (Johnny Orsini) begins to talk and question the others, it becomes apparent that all but two are Jews. Also apparent are the facts that they are all there to have their passports checked, and that the Jews among them will very surely be loaded onto a sealed freight train waiting in a railroad yard destined for a crematory in Poland.
As they begin to talk, the men start to reveal themselves as individuals. All are under the strain of fear, and the terrible tension of uncertainty causes most of them to open up to one another. There are two exceptions: the Gypsy (Evan Zes), picked up because he has stolen a kettle, who only shrugs and laughs, and an aged Jew (Jonathan Hadary), who clutches a big bag as he sits and waits, never opening his mouth.
“Incident of Vichy” is a short, sharp play in one long act, and it makes each of the prisoners representative of types of human beings.
The psychiatrist, Doctor Leduc (Darren Pettie), emerges eventually as a better and eloquent spokesman for the playwright, as he has a clear, probing mind. He asks the incisive questions that force the others to face up, as well as they can, to the truth about the hatred the Nazis were getting away with during the Holocaust. Leduc breaks down the lies and the untruths that most of the other prisoners offer the worst answers to because of the tension and increasing fear.
educ is the one who breaks through the self delusions of an Austrian Prince Von Berg – beautifully played by Richard Thomas – a Gentile who has been dragged in along with the others, who will be surely cleared when his papers are seen. The Prince considers himself an innocent bystander until Leduc gives a blunt speech about guilt in all of us, and brings the prince into a shocked recognition.
“Incident at Vichy” is not the best of Mr. Miller’s plays – like “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons” or “The Crucible.” Here, there seems to be more discussion than drama. There is one sequence in which the German officer, sickened by his part in the query, makes an insane attempt at self-justification. What happens afterwards between Leduc and Von Berg seems completely melodramatic, well-meant and honorable, but dramatically questionable.
Michael Wilson, who was the artistic director at the Hartford Stage, directs this provocative drama well, and gets fine, excellent performances out of the seventeen actors. The play’s ending comes across as weak, but until then, Mr. Miller’s play is still today a memorable drama that deserves to have been revived.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.