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Theatre in Review: Incident at Vichy (Signature Theatre)

Richard Thomas, Jonny Orsini. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Incident at Vichy, the simple act of waiting becomes an exercise in terror. The setting of Arthur Miller's most intensely concentrated drama is "a place of detention" in the title city, the center of collaborationist France in 1942. Wherever the room -- rendered in Jeff Cowie's set design as a kind of dilapidated warehouse -- is, it is clearly near the railroad, an especially disturbing detail, since transport to the Nazis' death camps remains an ominous -- and, for much of the play's running time, unspoken -- threat.

Miller has assembled a dozen men of varying ages and social strata who have been rounded up by the Nazis because their identity papers have been deemed irregular. The assumption -- which, in most cases, is accurate -- is that they are Jews. (The issue is so toxic that one of them, Lebeau, can only refer to their racial status by using the code word "Peruvian.") One by one, they will be ushered off stage into another room, where they will be interrogated by Professor Hoffman, who specializes in a form of racial science. Hoffman's methods are hardly sophisticated; they involve checking to see if each man is or isn't circumcised.

By and large, Miller doesn't spell out this terrible situation; he doesn't need to. It's there in the brisk, genial attitude of the Nazi officers who lead each man to his fate, in the off-stage laughter that seems so eerily out of place, the flash of light and the camera click that renders a life-or-death verdict -- and the fact that most of the men exit and do not return.

The first of them, Marchand, is released, a canny move on the part of the playwright to raise a faint glimmer of hope, allowing some of them to insist that there is really nothing to worry about, that they are caught in a minor bureaucratic snafu, that they will soon be restored to their daily lives. (It is early enough in the war that some still deny that the Final Solution is being implemented.) In truth, the only other man likely to emerge intact is Von Berg, a Viennese aristocrat. As played by Richard Thomas, he is plump and polished in his manners, his hair and mustache trimmed with Prussian precision. He is also at first tone-deaf to the fear surrounding him: "Excuse me," he asks the others, "Have you all been arrested for being Jewish?" The unspoken shock wave that passes across the stage is one of this production's more memorable moments.

For the most part, the members of Michael Wilson's cast supply a series of indelible character portraits, as each man desperately tries to rationalize his situation. Jonny Orsinis' Lebeau is the most garrulous of the crowd, talking, talking, talking, as if words alone could forestall his fate; he repeatedly laments how he tried to get his family out of the country a few years before, only to be overruled by his mother, who couldn't leave the family furnishings behind. (Most unsettlingly, when he was arrested, one of the Nazis attempted to measure his nose.) In contrast, John Procaccino's Marchand is preternaturally composed, a pose that doesn't conceal the anxiety lurking underneath. Derek Smith is Monceau, an actor whose assurance rests on the assumption that one can convincingly "act" one's way back to freedom. David Abeles is the frightened waiter who tends to Nazi officers in his café, and has learned enough to dismiss another's suggestion that concentration camps are only places of enforced work. ("They burn you up in Poland.") Jonathan Hadary is quietly moving in the largely dialogue-free role of an old Jew, taking part in a shocking struggle late in the play. On the other side of the divide, Brian Cross is the banality of evil embodied as Hoffman, who attends to the men's fates with the wearily cheerful air of an administrator burdened with too much paperwork, and James Carpinello is the Nazi officer who has been ordered to assist Hoffman and cannot stomach the assignment.

As the room empties out, the play turns on a furious debate between Von Berg, who has no use whatsoever for the Nazis -- he movingly describes his failed attempts at protecting a handful of Jewish musicians, members of an orchestra that he sponsored -- and Leduc, a psychiatrist who has been living in hiding. As Von Berg notes, the Nazis' power is "to do the inconceivable; it paralyzes the rest of us." But Leduc will have nothing of if; forcefully arguing his case, he chips away at Von Berg's protestation of innocence -- especially his remark that he felt suicidal before leaving Austria -- getting him to admit that his brother, Baron Kessler, is a Nazi, and insisting on the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism. Summing up, Leduc says, "It's not your guilt I want, it's your responsibility. Yes, if you had understood that Baron Kessler was, in part, in some part, in some small and frightful part, doing your will, you might have done something then, with your standing, and your name and your decency, aside from shooting yourself."

This arguments leads directly to the play's stunning final twist, and one wishes that Darren Pettie, as Leduc, had dug deeper into his character to find the full fury and gut-level terror with which he makes his points. Unless one feels that Leduc is unburdening himself because he has nothing left to lose, the climactic sequence of Incident at Vichy can feel a little too much like a structured debate; Pettie captures the line of Leduc's argument but not the emotions that motivate it; he never quite seems like someone literally arguing for his life. Thomas nevertheless charts the collapse of Von Berg's self-assurance, his terrible realization that Leduc may be right. He also has a revelatory moment in which he furiously shakes off an officer who attempts to physically guide him; even in this desperate situation, the aristocrat can't help but assert himself.

Cowie's set, itself a physical expression of despair, is lit by David Lander with his usual care and meticulous attention to detail. I regret, however, the projections of Rocco DiSanti; they are used sparingly -- images a flock of birds fleeing when a gun goes off, a train in motion -- but even so, they add up to so much visual frou-frou, the last thing needed in this stark production. David C. Woolard's costumes incisively detail each character's role in life. John Gromada's sound design, especially those photo clicks and the bone-rattling sound of a departing train, are typically first-rate.

Even if a few things about this production don't fully work, it remains a vivid account of the administration of savagery as practiced in a not-too-distant time. It goes without saying that, in a week in which a leading presidential candidate suggested creating a database of American Muslims, it remains horribly pertinent. As Miller shows, a simple racial classification is the first step down the road to genocide. -- David Barbour

(23 November 2015)

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