Arthur Miller's new play, "Broken Glass," is set in November 1938, the month of Kristallnacht, the breaking of the windows of Jewish stores and synagogues in Germany.
At the heart of the play are an American Jew who has devoted his life to pretending he is not Jewish, and his wife, literally paralyzed with fear at the increasing incidence of anti-Semitism.
This coupling - the self-loathing Jew and a woman crippled by the loathing of Jews she perceives in others - is potentially an explosive one, especially at a time when the world is consumed by conflagrations of ethnic hatreds, many of which are fires that had long been thought extinguished.
But Miller clutters his play about the Gellburgs (it is implied that the name has been changed from Goldberg) with naturalistic touches that have little vitality of their own and do not amplify his main concerns.
There is, for example, a subplot about a real-estate deal in which the Jew perceives latent anti-Semitism in his boss. It precipitates the final crisis of this play, but the way Miller presents it has a transparency that seems like his writing at the time of "All My Sons" almost 50 years ago.
Among the other characters is a Jewish doctor who goes horseback riding on Eastern Parkway (remember, this is 1938) and whose political views are unorthodox ("The Torah says a Jew has to be a Democrat?" he asks).
Another current that runs through the play is the sexless state of the Gellburgs' marriage for the last 20 years. Marital discord and resultant mental breakdown have been frequent themes in Miller's plays. He dealt with them touchingly a year ago in "The Last Yankee," but here the effort to yoke them to anti-Semitism seems strained.
The play works best in its congenial humor, but the light-hearted interludes (like those with the doctor's garrulous, Minnesota gentile wife), which are intended as a relief from the play's dark concerns, too often overshadow them.
Ron Rifkin is a master at playing middle-aged men whose frostiness has alienated everyone around them. The trick, of course, is that there must be enough charm, enough intelligence that the audience is not too chilled to be sympathetic. Few actors manage this balancing act as cannily as Rifkin.
As the distraught wife, Amy Irving has a radiance and dignity that keep her from being the nagging neurotic the part could easily be.
A play so preoccupied with Jewish identity probably should have an actor who registers "Jewish" more consciously than David Dukes does, but he has great charm as the doctor. (He replaced Ron Silver only a few weeks ago.)
Frances Conroy is winning as his wife. Lauren Klein and George Martin are fine in small roles.
William Bolcom has composed incidental music for cello, which is far more tortured than the play itself.
"Broken Glass" still seems more the outline for a play than the finished product.
The place is Brooklyn, the time is the end of 1938. And a woman has lost the use of her legs. Why?
At the beginning of "Broken Glass," Arthur Miller's striking yet ambiguous new play at the Booth Theater, her husband is told by their doctor that there is nothing physically wrong - the damage seems hysteric, what we would now probably call psychomatic. But why?
With this, his first major new play on Broadway for some years, the senior playwright of the Western world is still in an essentially somber and reflective mood.
Lives can be wasted, he tell us, through self-ignorance or self-denial, those adamant refusals to peer through mirrors into reality. Like much of Miller's work, "Broken Glass" has an Ibsenish concern with the betrayed and unalterable past, its dynamic finding momentum as much in the revelation of earlier sins and errors as from the going follies of the present.
The hero, Phillip (Ron Rifkin), is a self-loathing American Jew. But it is post-Munich; in Europe the Nazi oppression of the Jews, and American awareness of it, grows and grows.
Only the month before, Hitler occupied the Sudetenland and is now poised to invade Czechoslovakia. Yet Phillip, like his physician Harry (David Dukes), still believes in the fundamental decency of Germans, and that Germany's "Jewish question" will go away.
Phillip's wife, Sylvia (Amy Irving), on the other hand is terrified by what she reads and hears of the Nazi horrors. She is transfixed by pictures of Jewish shops with their glass windows broken, and elderly Jews forced to clean sidewalks with...toothbrushes.
So just why was Sylvia paralyzed? Was it politics or was it her life? Certainly what is happening in Europe gives her nightmares.
Yet is this angst entirely real or partly a sublimation for her rage at having sold herself out in a loveless, sexless marriage to a man who adores her but cannot show it? For Phillip, bent on assimilation, is almost a Nazi of a Jew. Rigid, self-denying.
Now, Sylvia becomes attracted to the life-assertive Harry - also a Jew but perfectly at ease with it - and sees her past as a total loss: "I gave my life away as if it were pennies," she tells us, "I took better care of my shoes."
Miller reportedly had difficulty with the play's ending, and intentionally or not his present conclusion is murky, readable in a number of ways according to the audience's perception.
The play has been cleanly staged by John Tillinger, with aptly antiseptic designs by Santo Loquasto and a handful of intelligently poised performances. By far the best is the bruised and bitter Sylvia of Amy Irving, in a great performance of class and clout.
And Rifkin's agonized and tortured Phillip, Dukes' decent, conceited, easygoing Harry, and George N. Martin's evasive and pompous portrait of Phillip's WASP boss, all add much to the play's power and texture.
Complex characters behaving complexly - Miller's cunning conundrum of a play is fascinating if not entirely satisfactory or even especially illuminating. For "Broken Glass," with all its mystery, reveals the shrewd theatricality of a master.
Arthur Miller's new play at the Booth Theater, "Broken Glass," asks the intriguing question, "Why can't Sylvia Gellburg walk?"
Paralyzed from the waist down, the woman, a middle-aged Brooklyn housewife, is otherwise in perfect health. There's nothing of the neurotic about her. She's smart, strong-willed and just as baffled as everyone else by her condition.
True, the time is 1938 and she's obsessed by a newspaper photo of two elderly Jews forced by Nazi thugs to scrub a street with a toothbrush. But events 4,000 miles away in Germany can't have much to do with the sudden numbing of her legs that has relegated her to a wheelchair and left her husband, Phillip, frustrated and angrier than usual. Or can they?
A kind of spiritual detective story, "Broken Glass" pokes and probes the Gellburgs' troubled lives and marriage and eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery. Chances are you will get there first. While it is a strange web of guilt and recrimination that is being spun, from a dramatic point of view it is an all too apparent one. The play's last-minute reckonings are predictable almost from the outset.
A playwright of fierce conscience, Mr. Miller has obliged businessmen, policemen, salesmen, Puritans, and even Adam and Eve ("The Creation of the World and Other Business") to account for themselves morally. But this time more than ever, he's wearing his conscience on his sleeve.
Since Sylvia is movingly portrayed by Amy Irving and Phillip is acted by Ron Rifkin, on a characteristically short fuse, "Broken Glass" delivers periodic jolts of pain and anguish. Over the evening, Ms. Irving's performance deepens impressively as she changes from a woman who has lost control of the present to one who realizes she has wasted her past. "A whole life," she observes in the play's most affecting speech. "Gave it away like a couple of pennies - I took better care of my shoes." The flatness in her voice rules out any self-pity and speaks only of the overwhelming futility that Linda Loman also feels at Willy's graveside. Ms. Irving's brilliance lies in her restraint.
For his part, Mr. Rifkin is quick, ironic and volatile as a Jew embarassed by his Jewishness, which he plays down whenever possible. At the Brooklyn Guaranty and Trust, he toadies to his WASP boss. But off the job, he sees only what he chooses to see, before his eyes narrow into disapproving slits. He reminds you of a mole on the verge of apoplexy. Having played similar types in "The Substance of Fire" and "Three Hotels," Mr. Rifkin may be less surprising here than his co-star. But he lends indisputable energy to a play that is all talk and fumbling confession.
The other characters in "Broken Glass," which originated at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, are either baldly utilitarian or expendable. There's been some attempt to make Dr. Harry Hyman (David Dukes), the neighborhood practitioner, who's treating Sylvia, into an incorrigible womanizer and dashing equestrian. Whatever the dramatic value of that, it's not exploited. Mr. Dukes, who is fairly short on charisma anyway, could be the dogged inspector in an Agatha Christie thriller, whose function it is to ask the leading questions, sort through the responses and nail the culprit just before the final curtain.
As for such dependable actors as Frances Conroy (the doctor's giggling wife), George N. Martin (the snobbish bank president) and the broadly amusing Lauren Klein (Sylvia's gossipy sister), they mostly seem to be putting in time.
Mr. Miller's title is double-barreled. One one hand, it refers to Kristallnacht, that night in 1938 when Nazis went on a rampage, shattering windows of Jewish shopkeepers and burning synagogues. It also has a domestic connotation, suggesting a violent fight between spouses and the wreckage of dinnerware flung in fury. Operating on the premise that no marriage is an island, Mr. Miller wants to connect the Gellburgs' traumas directly to the hysteria sweeping over Germany. Sylvia's paralysis, we're meant to understand, stems from the failure of those around her to recognize the Nazi threat. Her husband's self-loathing is deadening her. Literally.
"I just get the feeling sometimes that she knows something," speculates the doctor, waking up to the play's theme long after we do. "It's like she's connected to some...some wire that goes half around the world, some truth that other people are blind to."
The director, John Tillinger, lays it all out clearly, if dryly, on turntable sets (bedroom, doctor's office, boardroom) by Santo Loquasto. Mournful cello music by William Bolcom helps contribute to the mood. But until the end, when the play ignites in a burst of melodrama, there's something vaguely mathematical about Mr. Miller's excavation of the past. Each scene dutifully yields up its bit of exposition, reveals the telling personality trait or spills a little more of the dark secret. While he has always been an American Ibsen, preoccupied with the impact of long-ago deeds on the present, this is Ibsenism by the book.
"I have this unconventional approach to illness," the doctor explains at one point. "I believe we get sick in twos and threes and fours, not alone as individuals." So does the playwright. As he has illustrated in his long, productive career, one person's blindness can affect another's vision. Convulsions can seize a crowd. And what is the Depression that serves as a backdrop for so many of his works, if not a failure of the country's immune system?
Sylvia Gellburg is unable to walk because her husband is a cripple.
Arthur Miller's new play opens in a Broadway environment openly hostile to new play production, and it's a bleak, intimate tale that unfolds, despite a few laughs, darkly. It's the kind of proposition that would send most producers fleeing, and there is little question that, even with Amy Irving and Ron Rifkin's names on the marquee, "Broken Glass" will have a brief life at the Booth.
But that will be a shame, for in its attempt to place a painful marital cataclysm in the larger context of America's indifference to events unfolding in Germany during Hitler's rise to power, this serious work takes risks few playwrights muster the nerve to take.
These themes -- social responsibility and family honor -- are the stuff of all of Miller's work, and he has controlled them better elsewhere. But this quickly told story of a self-hating foreclosure artist, his too-sensitive wife and the doctor treating them won't soon be forgotten by those willing to give themselves over to it.
And, almost as a side benefit, it increases Irving's already solid stature as a gifted stage actress of uncompromising integrity.
Irving plays Sylvia Gellburg, a Brooklyn bookkeeper-turned-housewife and mother who has become obsessed with the reports buried in the papers of what has been happening to German Jews.
America is emerging from the Great Depression as 1938 is coming to an end. Up on Broadway, Walter Huston is singing "September Song" in "Knickerbocker Holiday" and Mary Martin is knocking them dead with "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in "Leave It to Me."
In her well-appointed home, however, Sylvia cannot clear her mind of a photograph in the paper, showing a pair of old Jewish men forced by German hooligans to scrub the sidewalk with toothbrushes.
Moreover, she can't walk, having been suddenly paralyzed from the waist down by a mysterious ailment. Her husband, Phillip (Rifkin), has sought help from a general practitioner, Dr. Harry Hyman (sympathetically played by David Dukes), who ascertains that the ailment is psychosomatic but doesn't quite know what to do about it.
"Broken Glass" is a kind of detective story, with the rather sordid details of Phillip and Sylvia's lives revealed in a series of dialogues between them and with the doctor.
Phillip is the token Jew at a mortgage company, and he's the kind of villain Rifkin is a master at playing, a sleek, self-loathing Jewish Republican willing to do the WASP company's dirty work because, among other things, the boss has gotten his son into West Point. What gives Phillip away even before we see his cruelty in action is his cheeks; they seem muscled from the tension that lives in his face.
Sylvia's face is a giveaway, too. Irving's mouth seems permanently curved downward in an expression of disappointment, while her dark eyes have the wounded look of an imprisoned creature. Sylvia dreams of her husband cutting off her breasts as a crowd looks on, and reaches out to Dr. Hyman for all the things she is missing, including love.
The play's title refers toKristallnacht, the "night of broken glass" that should have alerted the world to the horrors planned for European Jewry. But the title also refers ironically to the Jewish wedding custom of crushing a wine glass in celebration of the hoped-for permanence of the marital vows. The two themes co-exist uneasily here, but who else would even try?
All of the performances are heartfelt -- including those of Frances Conroy as the doctor's wife, Lauren Klein as Sylvia's sister and George N. Martin as Phillip's smug boss -- and director John Tillinger has achieved a remarkable unity of presentation given the script and cast changes that have rocked this production along the way to opening night.
Santo Loquasto's design, on the other hand, is somewhat jarring. The scenes shift on a revolve, from the offices of Dr. Hyman and the boss to Sylvia and Phillip's bedroom, none of which looks remotely like Brooklyn -- 1938 or any other year.
The settings may have been stylized in order to open up the play, but the effect, compounded by the banks of lighting instruments looming over the action, give the unfortunate impression of a marital tell-all unfolding for Oprah and her audience.
Miller himself adds to that feeling, with the histrionics sometimes getting out of hand and a melodramatic, contrived ending. "Broken Glass" still seems an unfinished work whose power has been only partly realized. In a better environment, that would be enough to bring in adventurous audiences willing to take a chance on the minor work of a major playwright. Those days are gone.