Theater review by Melissa Rose Bernardo
Under the heading of “you can’t make this stuff up”: Camp Siegfried, which gives Bess Wohl’s compelling but slight new Off Broadway play its title, was a real World War II–era summer camp in Suffolk County, Long Island, run by openly fascist German-Americans. Youths there could engage in such character-building activities as studying German, chopping wood and learning Nazi dogma. Wohl sets Siegfried in 1938—the actual camp didn’t close until 1941—and focuses on only two attendees. She (Lily McInerny) is 16, going on 17, and He (Johnny Berchtold) is 17, going on 18, but this is no Liesl-and-Rolf love story. These characters don’t even get names; they’re just She and He, as though the playwright had randomly plucked two teens from their temporary digs on Hitler Street.
At first glance, the two are simply awkward teenagers fumbling around the bases. After their first kiss, She sputters: “I’m sorry oh gosh I’m so sorry. I’m confused oh gosh I’m so confused. It’s nothing it’s nothing. It’s just that I hate myself.” But they’re clearly damaged goods—she’s coming off a yearlong “relationship” with a teacher; he refers to himself as “defective” and “a runt,” labels he undoubtedly received from his father—which makes them prime candidates for indoctrination. Listening to target practice in the distance, She parrots what she’s learned: “Fraulein Linda said the Day of Freedom is coming when we storm the government and fight back.” If you think that’s chilling, just wait till She gives her German Day speech to thousands of invisible cheering Nazis. It’s almost entirely in untranslated German, but here is one of the English bits: “The devils Bolsheviks Communists Jews.… Rip them out and tear them to shreds. Lock them up and throw away the key. Laugh when they beg for mercy.” She is, naturally, a triumph.
By zooming in so tightly on these two people, Wohl—whose other plays include the silence-filled Small Mouth Sounds, the generation-jumping sibling drama Make Believe and the bawdy comedy Grand Horizons—gives us a human glimpse into a horrific piece of history. And Berchtold and McInerny, making their New York stage debuts under the direction of David Cromer, are fantastic in their emotionally and physically demanding roles. But at 85 minutes, Camp Siegfried feels a little underweight to take on its provocative subject. According to the Anti-Defamation League, attacks against Jews across the U.S. are currently at an all-time high, and public figures have been sharing or amplifying anti-Semitic speech. “Anybody can fall into anything really,” She says in a moment of clarity. “Anyone can be seduced.” The play is a too-brief dip into this much deeper sea.
Camp Siegfried. Second Stage Theatre (Off Broadway). By Bess Wohl. Directed by David Cromer. With Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission. Through December 4.