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Incident at Vichy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Darren Pettie and Richard Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus

It begins as confusion, perhaps dotted with annoyance. What's happening? This can't be happening. Nothing's happening. Why is this happening? Then the apprehension creeps in, surreptitiously at first, but unmistakable: We know who we are, what we have in common, why we're here, and what this is. But before that feeling can explode into full-blown fear, the action starts in earnest, transporting us into a world choked with living, evolving grief that can only get worse—much, much worse—before it gets better. This is the haunting universe of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy, which Signature Theatre is giving a first-rate revival at the Signature Theatre Center under the direction of Michael Wilson.

This 1964 play, which was originally directed by Harold Clurman for the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, has an unremarkable premise and what is, essentially, a predetermined outcome, taking place as it does in Nazi-occupied France in 1942. But Miller, operating with a consummate passion and a high level of skill, didn't let himself get caught up by such obstacles. He unlocks no shortage of suspense and woe from a fairly traditional structure, and doesn't let you (or all of its characters) off the hook until the final moment. It's efficient (90 minutes, none wasted), intelligent playwriting that Wilson and a roundly capable, unglittering cast have treated with palpable care and affection.

What else would subjects like these deserve? Many of Miller's works (most notably Death of a Salesman, but also, say, A View From the Bridge, its current, uncentered Broadway revival notwithstanding) champion the everyday man who contains a hero, however inaccessible he might be, and they're much of his population here. A typical morning in France has, in a nondescript "place of detention" (the set, by Jeff Cowie, looks like a drab underground governmental lobby of a generation or two previous), brought together an atypical bunch: a businessman, a young socialist, a boy, a painter, an actor, a waiter, a doctor, an electrician, a gypsy, an Austrian prince who doesn't behave like one, and an ancient Jew. What the Nazis could possibly want with them is, among this crew, anyone's guess.

We know the answer, of course, and—substituting for narrative ingenuity—Miller has them discover it for themselves quickly enough. The discovery, though, isn't the goal, and, in any event, it can't stop what's coming. All it can do is make the waiting worse. Miller metes out the horror in tiny doses, forcing the victims to fill in the gaps between. This they do by coming to know each other: trusting, questioning, plotting, planning, bolstering their own flagging belief that they'll make it out alive. But when the Nazis emerge from the door at the other end of the cell (let's call it what it is), they're going to bring you into an office, and you may not come out again. You may (some do, after all). Judging from the first few participants in this grotesque game, however, the odds are in no one's favor.

Miller allows himself a bit of moralizing, maybe even too much with regard to the socialist and the doubting major who muses heavily on his role in the crusade in which he's enmeshed; it's at times like these that the mechanics of the play are more visible than is necessarily ideal. But Wilson and his company navigate these well, locking them into character enough that Miller's voice is ultimately little more than an overtone. Wilson's well-judged pacing and a suitably bleak physical production (the costumes are by David C. Woolard, the devastatingly perky lights by David Lander) further help anchor this as the inevitable potboiler it needs to be.

The performances are of one piece, and in firm keeping with the times as well as the mood. Jonny Orsini finds a confident vitality in the painter, as does Alex Morf as the socialist; Derek Smith brings a particularly calm desperation (and hefty doses of understatement) to the actor; David Abeles maintains a slow simmer of fright with the waiter; Darren Pettie's doctor is awash in a realistic resolve; James Carpinello capably portrays the jumbled mind of the desolate major; and Richard Thomas's lost-at-sea detachment is just right for the prince, who's a control and a sounding board for terrors he cannot begin to imagine.

Thomas makes the most of his role, which is good given how important it is. The prince represents the indifference, the not-in-my-backyard attitude that was so instrumental in helping the Nazis acquire and hold on to the power they used to commit the atrocities we know forever lurk just offstage. Turn your head away too many times, and you may not notice them coming for you when it's your turn.

"There are no persons anymore," the major barks at one point. "There will never be persons again." He's right, at least as far as where he is. They've been sacrificed on the altar of something bigger, something that neither love nor hope can penetrate. Those who escape aren't getting away with their lives. Miller makes it clear that, in this environment, there's nowhere to run. There are only different degrees of dead. Luckily for his, Wilson's Incident at Vichy could scarcely feel more alive.

Incident at Vichy
Through December 20
Signature Center at Pershing Square, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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