'Incident at Vichy': Theater Review

Incident at Vichy: Richard Thomas And Jonny Orsini - H 2015
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Richard Thomas heads a strong cast in this revival of Miller's powerful if talky and didactic drama.

Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre presents a revival of Arthur Miller's rarely performed 1964 one-act play, set in a Nazi detention center.

The New York theatrical world is not letting the centennial of playwright Arthur Miller's birth go uncelebrated. This season will see two major Broadway revivals of his plays: the recently opened and widely acclaimed A View from the Bridge, and the upcoming The Crucible, both directed by Ivo van Hove. Joining them is Signature Theatre's current off-Broadway revival of Incident at Vichy, Miller's rarely seen 1964 one-act drama set in World War II-era occupied France. 

The stark 90-minute piece takes place in a drab, run-down detention center in Vichy, where a group of men and a teenage boy have been rounded up for questioning by the Nazis and French police. They are a disparate lot — archetypes really — including a well-dressed businessman (John Procaccino); a struggling artist (Jonny Orsini); a Marxist electrician (Alex More); a jittery cafe waiter (David Abeles); an elderly man who sits silently (Jonathan Hadary); a gypsy (Evan Zes); and a self-important actor (Derek Smith).

Joining them shortly afterward are two men who prove central to the proceedings: Leduc (Darren Pettie), a psychoanalyst, and Von Berg (Richard Thomas), an Austrian prince.  

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Those assembled are understandably anxious to know why they've been detained, espousing contrasting theories. The businessman assures the others, "It's just a document check, that's all." But the artist, who was recently stopped on the street by authorities to have his nose measured, is afraid the reasons are more sinister.

And he turns out to be right, because one of their detainers is an officious German professor (Brian Cross), who proudly announces that his specialty is "racial anthropology."

Leduc is the most assertive member of the group, convinced of the Germans' evil intentions and desperately attempting to rally his fellow detainees to join him in an escape attempt. Their unwillingness to do so, as well as the frustrations voiced by a sympathetic German Major (James Carpinello), is reflective of the inaction that the Nazis preyed upon in pursuing their horrific agenda.  

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Incident at Vichy reflects both Miller's strengths and weaknesses as a dramatist. It deals with powerful themes of guilt and responsibility, tautly dramatized and well-defined. But the play is also talky and didactic, its themes expressed too baldly. Toward the end, when Leduc and the Major engage in a lengthy philosophical debate about acting in defiance of evil, it feels more like the playwright talking than his characters.

Still, the brief work has a gripping cumulative power that builds to a surprising conclusion, which is at once uplifting and tragic. Director Michael Wilson's staging is highly effective, with sound and projection effects heightening the tension at key moments. The large ensemble (one of the reasons the play is so infrequently staged) is mostly excellent, although their effectiveness is marred by some questionable casting: Carpinello, who starred in the short-lived Broadway musical version of Saturday Night Fever, as well as Rock of Ages, is not quite convincing as the troubled, alcoholic Major; and Orsini (The Nance) looks far too hale and hearty to be a starving artist.

The standouts are Pettie, bringing a dynamic forcefulness to his turn as the shrink, who is also a French army captain, and Thomas, compelling as the elegant aesthete prince, who decries Nazism as "an ocean of vulgarity."

Cast: Jonny Orsini, Alex More, John Procaccino, Quinlan Corbett, Derek Smith, Evan Zes, David Abeles, Jonathan Gordon, James Carpinello, Curtis Billings, Jonathan Hadary, Alec Shaw, Darren Pettie, AJ Cedeno, Richard Thomas, Brian Cross, Demosthenes Chrysan
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Michael Wilson
Set designer: Jeff Cowie
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: John Gromada
Projection designer: Rocco DiSanti

Presented by Signature Theatre