By Tulis McCall
In Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, now in production at the Signature Theatre, it is 1942 in Vichy France where half the government of France was set up, ostensibly out of reach of the Germans who were occupying the North and pretty much every where else. Eight men are being detained. The opening scene is a bit of mastery beginning with a tableau that morphs every so slowly into a breathing organism of men on the edge of terror. Once the play begins to move, however, this moment succumbs to a heavy handed presentation of what I believe was Miller’s deep dive into a contemporary abyss. Written int 1964, WWII was a fading memory, but Viet Nam was thundering down the tracks and the Korean War was still in our rear view mirror.
Miller drags the Nazis into our visual sphere by speaking about them in terms we can understand. The Nazis are dependent upon big business to take over everything and reduce us to cogs in a machine. They are an outburst of supreme vulgarity and anything that threatens that is to be examined and removed. People with heritage and confidence. People not willing to be as vulgar. Basically, anyone whom they choose to target. The Nazis come in many flavors and if we confine them to the past we will miss seeing them in our present. Televised political debates anyone???
The men in question have been detained mostly because they are Jewish. This is not a fact they want to admit, but cannot help mentioning. The less that a person knows about another person the safer they all are. It is a who’s who of vulnerability. Each was picked up that day on the street and brought in for questioning. No one has told them why, and as they try and sort out their chances of leaving alive, their stories of how they were picked up tumble out of them. Lebeau (Johnny Orsini), an artist, was out for a and taken in after they measured his nose. Bayard (Alex Morf) an electrician who turned around for home to get his lunch. A boy (Jonathan Gordon) on the way to the pawn Broker with his mother’s ring. Leduc (Darren Pettie) the former French Army Officer now psychiatrist chose today for one of his rare town visits. And then there is the baron Von Berg (Richard Thomas) who was out getting a paper. A motley unconnected crew (with a dizzying array of accents that are distracting and illogical) except for being detained in the middle of a world war.
This cast, however, shows no real sign of fear. For the most part they appear not much more than annoyed, as if they were all waiting for flu shots that had just been made compulsory by their boss. The man in line at JFK customs last fall was more aggrieved at the lack of personnel taking care of our line than any of these characters were at being stuck in a life and death situation. Even when it becomes obvious that the men entering the office next door, where there is a perplexing flash of what we assume is a camera, are not returning to the waiting room, the tension only grows by millimeters.
Miller covers a lot of cumbersome ground here – economics and politics are the real bedfellows, not Hitler and Churchill, and these men are no match for the forces that are vying for power. The real fight is in the stratosphere of back room deals, while the people slogging about in the mud and blood are dispensable. Oil in Iraq. Magnesium funneled through Vietnam. It’s all about commodities when you reduce the stories down. When the higher ups have duked it out and made their decisions, the worker bees will be released to find their way and keep the machine fed. The detention of these men is truly no more than an incident. So the cast has two jobs: to touch our hearts and feed our intellects. 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 as neither endeavor. They end up stranded, neither here nor there. As do we. A disappointment indeed.
Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller, Directed by Michael Wilson
Cast:David Abeles, Curtis Billings, James Carpinello, AJ Cedeno, Quinlan Corbett, Brian Cross, Demosthenes Chrysan, Jonathan Gordon, Jonathan Hadary, Alex Morf, Jonny Orsini, Darren Pettie, John Procaccino, Alec Shaw, Derek Smith, Richard Thomas and Evan Zes
Signature Theatre, James Hougton Founding Artistic Director, Erika Mallin Executive Director; Scenic Design Jeff Cowie, Costume Design David C. Woolard, Lighting Design David Lander
“Incident at Vichy” runs through Dec. 13 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.