Bess Wohl’s play Camp Siegfried is based on an unusual piece of dark American history: under that name the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization, ran a summer camp in Yaphank, Long Island, from 1936 to 1941. There during character building activities like chopping wood and hiking through woods in the middle of the night, they indoctrinated teenagers in their fascist creed and planned a future uprising.
Wohl’s two-character play seen in 2021 in London, brings together the unnamed He, a 17-year-old teenage boy who has visited the camp many summers with his father and brothers, and She, a 16-year-old girl from Baltimore here for the first time visting her aunt. The play directed by David Cromer follows their initially sweet and timid summer romance. Unfortunately, the script is so tentative and so gradual in their indoctrination that the message is not as powerfully brought home as it might.
After they meet cute hiding out from a dance, we find out that she is staying with her aunt, a local, on the camp’s Hitler Street, which is our first clue to what is going on. They are both prime candidates for propaganda and persuasion: she has just come off of a year’s affair with a married teacher back in Baltimore and he is the shortest member of his family and is considered the runt by his disparaging father and brothers. As they get to know each other, they cling to this new friendship as they don’t make any other friends. Wanting to belong and be accepted makes them susceptible to the indoctrination into the Nazi philosophy.
Eventually he loses his virginity to her and they hope she has become pregnant to add a child to the Aryan race. They are taught to hate “Bolsheviks, Communists and Jews” but you suspect they don’t know any. It is not until she walks out of the camp and goes back to the outside world that she realizes what is going on. She discovers that “anybody can fall into anything really, anyone can be seduced.” And she has been warned on the outside to “never underestimate your infinite capacity for delusion.” She and he ultimately take separate journeys.
Designed by Brett J. Banakis, the entire play takes place on a grassy knoll with the side of a building on stage right and a tree and path on stage left. While at first it is the perfect set for the story, the fact that it doesn’t change makes it seem like each successive scene is a continuation of what we have already witnessed even though from their dialogue they are in different places which are not represented. As the costumes by Brenda Abbandandolo mostly remain the same (the camp unforms), there is little sense of time passing. Christopher Darbassie’s sound design including the German oompah band is fine as far as it goes, most of the time we get the feeling the two campers are the only ones on the camp grounds as it is so quiet.
Making their New York stage debuts, Johnny Berchtold and Lily McInerny are sensitive actors but seem much too tall to be teenagers. Berchtold makes the most of his character’s awkwardness and social ineptness while McInerny’s performance counts mainly on her hesitancy and feelings of being the new girl at camp. Like the play, there is a feeling of tentativeness about their performances though the play gives them so little backstory it may not be of their choosing. Cromer moves them about interestingly on the stage with scenes staged in different areas but he has done less with their characterizations, leaving much subtext rather than certainties.
Camp Siegfried is a new departure for the author of Small Mouth Sounds, Continuity, Make Believe and Grand Horizons. Depicting an important piece of history in an age when hate speech is on the rise, the play seems to be attempting something it doesn’t quite achieve. However, it is certainly a worthy effort and an engrossing piece in the theater though it leaves us hungry for more.
Camp Siegfried (through December 4, 2022)
The Second Stage
Tony Kiser Theater, 307 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit http://www.2ST.com
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission