Shards of Ideas
Imagine a Jewish woman in Brooklyn, 1938, who's seemingly so paralyzed with fear by what she reads in the papers about Nazi Germany that, even though there's nothing physically wrong with her, she's lost the ability to feel anything below the waist and been confined to a wheelchair. Imagine her intense husband, who's so ambivalent about being Jewish that he's become impotent. Imagine their conflicted doctor, a Jew who went to medical school in Germany and was so impressed by the country's cultural legacy that he has trouble accepting the atrocities of the Holocaust.
These are only some of the profundities in Arthur Miller's latest work, Broken Glass, currently being presented by Stages. The force of Miller's convictions remains undeniably intact; nobody writes capital D Dilemmas like this octogenarian. But it's shattering how painful Broken Glass is. It's not that Miller has too much at stake in the play; it's that he has too much on his mind. It's only because Miller's ambitions are so high that he fails so utterly. The weight of responsibility results in Miller getting in his own way; the same can be said of Stages' production.
Broken Glass begins with gripping mystery: Phillip Gellburg consulting Dr. Harry Hyman about Phillip's wife Sylvia, who has been stricken with what Dr. Hyman labels "hysterical paralysis." A woman shutting down her body because her mind simply cannot process, as she says, old men forced to crawl around and clean sidewalks with toothbrushes, could make for a supreme drama. "It's like I was just born," she confesses, "and I didn't want to come out yet." But rather than concentrate on Sylvia, Miller tries for a fuller picture of what it meant to be American and Jewish at this crucial point in history, wanting to show that Phillip, who both loves and hates it that he's the only Jew at the bank for which he works, and Dr. Hyman, an assimilationist who might be spreading himself too thin, are also emotional cripples. Instead of spinning a web of intrigue, however, Miller gets tangled up trying to connect the dots.
"I'm beginning to wonder if this whole fear of the Nazis isn't because she feels E extremely vulnerable," Dr. Hyman tells Phillip toward the end of Act One, when the play really starts to unravel. "I'm in no sense trying to blame you, but E a woman who doesn't feel loved can get very disorientated, you know? Lost." It's soon revealed that Phillip is impotent; he and Sylvia haven't had sex since conceiving their only child 20 years ago.
From the beginning, Phillip is presented as hiding something, and his impotence makes it all too apparent that he's uncomfortable with himself because he's unresolved about his heritage. But Miller develops Phillip almost exclusively off-stage, and does so via stereotypic attributes rather than individual characteristics. We're told that Phillip is the type of Jew who changed his last name from Goldberg to Gellburg. "It's the only one in the phone book," he says. We're told that he's head of a mortgage department that -- ahem -- "evaluates property," that he enrolled his son at West Point because he "wanted people to see that a Jew doesn't have to be a lawyer or a doctor or a businessman" and that he, an "inadequate" man, sometimes hits Sylvia, whom he "adores." It's just too easy that Phillip, who always dresses in black, is a symbol of irresolution.
Phillip's impotence is aligned with Dr. Hyman's virility, and a triangle is set up so inexact that you can hardly take the measure of it. Said to be a lady's man, Dr. Hyman is attracted to Sylvia, flirting with her as much as treating her. This does two things vis-a-vis our conception of him. First, it makes us ponder his ethics (and Miller is also quite blase in how he deals with Dr. Hyman dabbling in psychiatry, which isn't his specialty). Second, it seems to contradict Dr. Hyman's claim -- which is pursued too vaguely by Miller -- that Sylvia is his salvation, a means to his acquiring a conscience. "I just get the feeling sometimes that she knows something, something that ... it's like she's connected to some ... some wire that goes half around the world," Dr. Hyman analyzes, "some truth that other people are blind to." Does Dr. Hyman want to cure her? Phillip? Himself? And of what? The connections aren't clear. Marriage counselor, psychotherapist, man on the make -- there is no sum to these various parts of the good doctor.
What's more, Dr. Hyman is the one who delivers the play's ultimate message, doing so in a manner that's supposed to signify him as a source of knowledge, power and redemption. However, the message he delivers about "fear" and "forgiveness" is dumbfoundingly banal. The periodic appearance of Dr. Hyman's wife, who's supposed to offer commentary but is too unformed to do so, only confuses things further.
These attempts to have the characters reflect one another results in Sylvia's being blurred. Does she adamantly defend Dr. Hyman because she's "lonely"? It seems so. And yet the play's reason for being is much, much more than this. Has Sylvia brought her condition upon herself? Yes, but that's superficially and confusingly probed. And who's right: Phillip, who claims that finally, after two decades, they made love one night and that Sylvia slept through it, or Sylvia, who says that Phillip made the whole thing up? With so much else to get to, Miller has no time to explore this excruciatingly delicious enigma.
By trying to reach too far, Miller winds up with little in his grasp. If he had stuck to Sylvia's plight, he could have created a visionary fusion of body and mind at a pivotal juncture in history. He could also have homed in on whether the persecution Phillip doesn't want to admit he suffers from is real or a complex, especially since some of the most artful moments in the play are between him and his boss, who may or may not be prejudiced.
But Miller doesn't get beyond the obvious. For most of the play, "the Jewish question" isn't discussed at all, and when it finally is, Miller's insights are trite. Sylvia recounts a dream that's supposed to speak volumes but turns out to be straight out of Freud 101; the climax wants to soar but flounders in melodrama. At one point, one character tells another to look in the mirror (hence part of the reason for the title); I'd say the same to Miller. I didn't see the 1994 New York premiere that received some acclaim, but I'd wager that much of its strength derived from a cast that included Ron Silver as Dr. Hyman, Amy Irving as Sylvia and Ron Rifkin as Phillip.
John Arp, as Phillip in Stages' production, is the only cast member to get at the essence of his character, which he does so memorably that his is one of the performances of the season. Rigid, blunt and smacking his lips in a tic, pallid and awkward even when smiling, Arp's Phillip is no easy man to talk to, even though he seems perfectly reasonable.
As Sylvia, Christianne Mays is too much of a blank slate; this Alley veteran knows what to emphasize, but her machinations don't amount to distinctive emotional development. Too young for the role and making a mishmash of his Yiddish accent, Thomas Baird as Dr. Hyman isn't the only one miscast; let's just leave it that he and the supporting players (excepting Stuart Purdy, excellent as Phillip's indeterminate boss) are woefully out of their element.
Also out of sync are the costumes. Some reinforce the skillfully impressionistic set, which, from intricate window to skewed floor, is colored black or white. But others are unaccountably "colorful."
For any Arthur Miller play to have a chance to succeed, the direction must be imperative and inevitable. Beth Sanford's is reverential and tentative. She stresses everything equally. But then again, so does Miller.
Broken Glass plays through April 14 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 52-
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events