Friday, 27 November 2015

Arthur Miller's INCIDENT AT VICHY at the Signature Theatre

     When Arthur Miller wrote INCIDENT AT VICHY half a century ago, the Holocaust was only twenty years in the past and seemed the most powerful example of the depths to which humanity could sink. Because it was an attempt at exterminating a specific category of person (though Roma, gays and communists were also rounded up), it seems more horrible than the millions Stalin killed. Since the play was written we have had other horrific examples of genocide and certainly seemingly countless examples of a group hatefully trying to destroy what they see as "the other." The world seems to be caught up in an epidemic of hate, stirred up in our own country by demagogues like Mr. Trump. INCIDENT AT VICHY now seems to be about more than one single historical moment.
     At a time when we are all in support of France after recent attacks in Paris, it is interesting that Miller's holocaust play does not take place in Germany, but in France, which seemed content for a while to allow Hitler to bring his anti-Semitic policies to their country. The setting is a waiting room where a group of men who have been brought in by French police wait to be interrogated by Nazi army officers and a Nazi racial anthropologist. The men soon realize that they are there because they are suspected of being Jews. The purpose of the interrogation is to determine if they are "not French" (i.e. Jews). If so they will be sent to a concentration camp. Also there for some reason (a not totally convincing dramatic contrivance), is an Austrian prince (the magnificent Richard Thomas) who left his native land because the thugs had taken over and refinement is gone. He hates the Nazis because they have no respect for beauty and culture, a claim that is somewhat inaccurate (Hitler loved Wagner) and less important than the fact that the Nazis were perpetrating mass murder. There's also an artist, a socialist, an old orthodox Jew, a fiery young man. There would be more variety and interest if there were also some women in this large, all-male cast.
     Arthur Miller should have read a lot of George Bernard Shaw before he set out to write this discussion play. Shaw could leaven serious discussion with wit. Miller never demonstrates much of a sense of humor--he's all moral earnestness. Shaw also knew that this sort of play is more interesting if the bad guys are as convincing and theatrically viable as the good guys. This may seem difficult to do with Nazis, whom we all see as evil personified, but perhaps an articulate, convincing voice for an argument of racial purity would make us understand the Nazi point of view, however horrible. However much we may deny it, a lot of people believe deep down that their own race is superior. A viable dramatic representation of our worst prejudices would have been interesting. Director Michael Wilson has made the Nazis, even the Professor of Racial Anthropology handsome young men, but even that is something of a stereotype. Miller's play is eloquent, often gripping, but too unwaveringly earnest.  
     Michael Wilson keeps the play moving and varies the tone as much as the script allows. The cast of seventeen is consistently strong. Richard Thomas is superb as the Austrian prince. He grabs one's attention even by sitting still. This is a seemingly meek man who also knows his authority. Jonny Orsini dominates the first third of the play as a young painter, the first character who understands why they are in this room. James Carpinello makes the most of his moment as a wounded Nazi officer who despises his job almost as much as he despises Jews.
     Arthur Miller is considered one of our best playwrights, yet his work has serious flaws. The very fact that there are no women in this discussion play is reflective of his very old-fashioned sexual politics. Does he find women incapable of the kind of serious discussion this play requires? Women in Miller's work tend to be dutiful wives or young temptresses. Men can violate their marriage vows and still be tragic heroes but women who act outside of the conventional sex/gender system are sluts. He has virtually no sense of humor. Yet his writing can be eloquent. God knows he's morally earnest.  Nonetheless INCIDENT AT VICHY is worth seeing. The arguments are timely and the performances are excellent.

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