Grains of a Good Play Exist in Arthur Miller's Strained `Broken Glass'
But the work seems to stretch for significance
BROKEN GLASS Play by Arthur Miller. Directed by John Tillinger. At the Booth Theater.
WHEN Arthur Miller writes a play, to quote one of his famous phrases from an earlier work, attention must be paid. Miller is one of the truly great dramatists of the 20th century, and ``Broken Glass'' is his first full-length work to be seen here in years (his ``Ride Down Mt. Morgan'' opened in London but has not played in New York, and his ``The Last Yankee'' was really a one-act).
The play concerns the paralysis suffered by Sylvia Gellburg (Amy Irving), the long-married, long-suffering wife of a successful Jewish banker, Phillip (Ron Rifkin). It is 1938, and word of Nazi oppression of the Jews in Germany has started to reach America, particularly, of course, Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass.
This is not of much interest to Phillip, who is concerned with his Jewishness only as far as he can rise above it. He is proud that he is the only Jewish employee in his prestigious firm (his WASPish boss, played by George N. Martin, is the type who rushes out of the office to go sailing, white cap in hand), and that his son is the only Jew at West Point.
Phillip has come to Dr. Harry Hyman (David Dukes) seeking help for his wife's problem. It is immediately obvious that Phillip is a man with many underlying problems (he takes pains to stress that his name is Gellburg, not Goldberg, and that it is actually Finnish). Dr. Hyman has discovered that there is no physiological basis for Sylvia's condition. He determines that the problem is psychological, and that Sylvia's terror of the European turmoil has manifested itself in her inability to move her legs.
Although not a psychologist, Hyman begins to probe both Phillip and Sylvia's psyches in an attempt to cure her.
It quickly becomes apparent that there is as much turmoil between Phillip and Sylvia as there is overseas, and that Sylvia's real problem may be the lack of love in her marriage. Complicating matters even further is the sexual attraction between the doctor and Sylvia, and the growing antagonism between the doctor and Phillip.
Although Sylvia's paralysis is the central event of the play, it is really Phillip and his growing desperation that is the main focus. He gives bad advice to his boss on a business deal, losing out to a Jewish competitor, and realizes that despite all his efforts he cannot escape the fact that he will always be perceived through his Jewishness.
Rifkin, who has excelled in recent years playing men full of self-loathing (``Substance of Fire,'' ``Three Hotels''), delivers yet another intense and powerful portrait here.
The play has been given an elegant production by director John Tillinger, and it is certainly a dignified and heartfelt effort. But you can feel Miller's strain in trying to write something significant. The play has reportedly gone through several different endings, and that is indicative of the fact that once the playwright came up with the central conceit, he was at a loss as to what it actually meant. The ending he has finally come up with makes some dramatic and psychological sense, but it is a kind of melodramatic scene that defies the efforts of the best directors and performers to stage it. It is also at odds with the play's thematic thrust.
The characterizations, too, are problematical. Even if you rationalize that psychology was at a primitive enough state in the 1930s that an untrained doctor would try his hand at it, the extent of Dr. Hyman's efforts makes the character seem more of a dramatic device than a motivated individual. And despite Sylvia's obvious need for physical and emotional closeness, she, too, seems undeveloped. The character of Margaret, Dr. Hyman's wife (Frances Conroy) is completely extraneous; she seems to be onstage only to demonstrate that he is happily married.
Miller has hit on a powerful, if somewhat obvious, metaphor, and one wishes that the drama had soared with the poetic grandeur that he has proven capable of. You can feel that there's a great play buried within ``Broken Glass,'' but like its heroine, it can't seem to rise to its feet.