DEAD ON ARRIVAL
by Harvey Perr
published March 20, 2009
Incident at Vichy
now playing Off Broadway at the Beckett on Theater Row
through April 11
If you’ve never spent ninety minutes with a corpse, awaiting the embalmer, then I recommend a visit to the Beckett Theatre where
TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) is reviving Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. I recognize
that any theater critic who pronounces a play by one of our preeminent playwrights, especially one that deals with personal responsibility
on a serious moral level, as dead on arrival, is in one of those dreaded “damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t” situations. Well, I’m damned if
I’m going to call this dispiriting and numbing experience anything but what it is. This is not a play; it is an argument. It is not that
arguments cannot come alive in the theater, but, in order for that to happen, there must be a dramatic event.
If Harold Clurman, a director who knew something about creating dramatic events in the theater, could not keep the original
production from inertness, even with a cast that included Joseph Wiseman, David Wayne, Hal Holbrook and Michael Strong, it seems an act of
sheer chutzpah on the part of Scott Alan Evans to attempt to resurrect the play with a cast of journeyman actors who go through the motions
of acting without seeming to grasp hold of their characters and their connection to each other. It is partly due to the fact that these are
not so much real people in a real situation as they are archetypes and, worse, stereotypes, and it is partly due to the fact that Miller is
guiding them through an illustrated lecture.
The situation is tense enough. A group of men – mostly Jews and one gypsy and one non-Jew, a prince named Von Berg – are detained
in a courtyard in Vichy, France, during the Nazi occupation, waiting to be sent to deportation trains (if their papers are not in order)
and their ultimate deaths. This information alone is enough to scream significance to an easily vulnerable audience and, surely, during its
original run, and in subsequent productions, there have been a handful of reviewers who stood up against the naysayers and called the play
important. And, in outline, it is. The illegality of the detention makes it not just a play
about the horrors of the Holocaust, but a living reminder of our own recent past in Guantanamo. But Miller is asking us to be moved by what
we already know, not by what he depicts. It is only in the final confrontation between the intellectual Jew Leduc and the elegant Von Berg
that a real conflict arises and, by some odd directorial choice of seeming to slough it off as an ordinary and curiously indifferent act,
it further flattens an already flat production.
Many sane and decent people have tried for years to prove that Incident at Vichy
is Arthur Miller‘s neglected masterpiece. This still-born production doesn’t make a
strong case in its favor.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com