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Off-Broadway Play Review—Bess Wohl’s “Camp Siegfried”

Camp Siegfried
Written by Bess Wohl
Directed by David Cromer
Through December 4, 2022
Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
Johnny Berchtold and Lily McInenery in Bess Wohl's Camp Siegfried 
(photo: Emilio Madrid)
In plays like Make Believe and Grand Horizons, Bess Wohl has shown a talent for witty observational humor and an ability to dissect intriguingly off-kilter relationships, both of which are on display in her latest play, Camp Siegfried—but there’s more at stake as well, which Wohl doesn’t make entirely convincing.
Set in 1938 on Long Island, Camp Siegfried introduces two characters at its eponymous locale, as German Americans indoctrinate their children into the ethos of fascism. (The camp was real, welcoming its guests from 1936 to 1941, when the America finally entered World War II against the Axis powers.) “He” is 17, all blustery confidence, while “She” is 16, seemingly naïve and initially bemused about why she is there. 
For 85 minutes, Wohl follows the pair through their days and nights at the camp, as they meet cute, become friends then lovers, and engage in menial but intensely physical work (the two performers actually build a podium from wood onstage) to meet the qualifications for being part of the Aryan master race.
Wohl’s dialogue is at its best when He and She talk about what others are telling them: what their parents and other adults, like the married teacher She had an affair with, almost offhandedly say, loaded with meaning. She recounts that a local doctor she visits said to her, “Anyone can be seduced,” which could serve as the play’s subtitle. But Wohl takes the easy way out by not dramatizing effectively enough how the drift toward fascist, racist ideology can be done so casually, offhandedly. 
This is underscored by the heavily pregnant final lines of dialogue, which bluntly state what the play has been understated about all along. As in Make Believe, the relatively short running time is both a plus and a minus: although it gets Wohl’s points across economically, there’s also a sense of something missing, that the play’s 11 scenes are mere sketches for a more penetrating and resonant psychological study yet to be written.
David Cromer directs economically on Brett J. Banakis’ beautifully appointed outdoor set, complete with a hillside, gravel path and even trees, cannily lit by Tyler Micoleau. Both actors, making their New York debuts, are commanding in their teenage awkwardness: Johnny Berchtold adroitly catches He’s balancing act of a kid trying to become a man in difficult circumstances.
Even better is Lily McInerny, who gives a tremendous performance as She, an initially shy wallflower who becomes a snarling, screaming defender of “America/Germany First” lunacy at the play’s climax. Her transformation from teenager to woman in front of our and (He’s) eyes is a scarily perfect portrayal of how ideology can lead to violence that’s the most unforgettable piece of acting on a New York stage right now.

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