April 1, 2009

A Truly Arresting "Incident at Vichy"

The large number of theater companies in New York means that loads of good productions often go overlooked, particularly at a time like this when big Broadway shows are opening almost every night and hogging the spotlight. But here’s one production that shouldn’t be missed: the outstanding revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy that The Actors Company Theatre is currently presenting at the Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row.

TACT, as the company is known, was started 17 years ago to do rarely seen plays by major playwrights. So, instead of mounting yet another revival of A Streetcar Named Desire or The Little Foxes, it does Tennessee William’s The Eccentricities of a Nightingale and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. Miller's Incident at Vichy fits the mold perfectly

This Holocaust-themed play may be the least performed of Miller’s early works. It also happens to be one of my favorites since I first read it back in high school for a paper I was writing on the playwright. Its musings about what moral responsibilities we owe to one another and to ourselves appealed to the young idealist in me and it still grabs me, although I am far older and
, alas, far more practical now.

The reviews for Incident at Vichy were mixed when it opened in 1964 as part of the first season of the short-lived Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. The New York Times critic Howard Taubman called it a “stunning play” but The New Yorker dismissed it as didactic, lethargic and lacking dramatic flair. A TV production of the play was filmed in 1973 but it’s never been revived on Broadway and got its last off-Broadway outing in a Jewish Repertory Theatre production in 1981.

The plot is a simple one. Eight men and one 15 year-old boy are brought into a detention center in Vichy, France during World War II. Over the course of the play’s 90 minutes running time, they discover that most of them are Jews, worry about what will happen to them and argue about whether there is any way to avoid their fate as, one after another, they are called into an office by a team of German inquisitors. Almost none of the interrogated return.

The waiting men come from different walks of life—they are businessmen and artists, peasants and noblemen, tradesmen and intellectuals—and they represent different responses to the moral questions Miller poses but in this production, each one emerges as a distinct individual and every member of the all-male cast gets—and makes the most of—his moment to shine, including the silent bearded man who is identified only as the Old Jew and the conflicted German officer who manages to turn a now-familiar cliché into a believably tormented man. I don’t remember seeing any of these actors before but I’m now eager to see all of them again. (Click here to see a trailer of the production.)

But the biggest praise goes to director Scott Alan Evans who has created a potent production that fulfils TACT’s mission to revive neglected works and the playwright’s to make us confront uncomfortable truths. Evan's Incident at Vichy is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying for any one who professes to love good theater. To paraphrase Miller, attention should be paid.

No comments: