Window pains

Arthur Miller shouldn't throw stones

When Broken Glass, Arthur Miller's glimpse at the intersection of marriage and world community responsibility, opened in New York in 1994, it closed quickly after receiving mixed to horrible reviews. London audiences and critics, a few years later, bruised their palms in riotous ovations. I'm not sure what this reaction says about the difference between Americans and Brits, although I'm sure the variation has less to do with national identity than England's experience with the armies of Adolf Hitler, the unseen but oft-referenced villain in Broken Glass. The script purports to be about one Brooklyn woman crippled by fear of the Third Reich as its more horrifying crimes are just getting under way in 1938 Europe. Maybe residents of London appreciated the fact that Miller spread the World War II misery around a bit, that Americans were seen suffering a little rather than being the dashing heroes who rescued damsel Europe.

That's the best explanation I can chalk up to the overseas success of Broken Glass, because quite frankly, it's an awful script. The full force of its clumsiness doesn't really weigh on you until the final scene, and then you realize Miller has been picking up and dropping themes with the false confidence of a drunken sailor in his favorite bar. He's written so much (and so much better) about The Holocaust and anti-Semitism that you feel he's overestimated their uses as metaphors, or at the very least, mixed them together with several more (sexual impotence, illness, ethnic identity) until they're a thin, flavorless gruel. There's very little that Theatre Three could do to save this script, and director Jac Alder and his cast are neither awful nor inspired, with one notable exception. They just trudge through the pretentious muddle, conspiring with the playwright to pretend their words have meaning.

Sylvia (Ann Lynn Kettles) is a woman with imagination and intelligence altogether too large for the dreary, sexless marriage she has settled into with uptight Phillip (Terry Vandivort). Broken Glass never squarely sets its sights on Phillip's source of spiritual constipation. We are told that he makes disparaging remarks about his own people, but at the same time he's hugely proud about being one of the first Jews at his mortgage bank, and about his son being a similar pioneer at West Point. This seems reasonable and even laudable, hardly evidence of self-loathing, but apparently Miller sees it as assimilationist. He especially condemns Phillip for thinking he's powerless to stop Hitler's persecution of European Jews. (The feeling shared, no doubt, by many American Jews at the time, but was it proof of some larger guilt?)

Apparently, all this internal ethnic conflict is connected to the fact that Phillip can't get it up, and as Sylvia reads The New York Times and sees pictures of elderly Jewish men being tormented during the November 1938 Kristallnacht ("The Night of the Broken Glass," when Jewish shops were vandalized by German forces), she suddenly, literally can't get up. Her legs become paralyzed.

Enter Dr. Hyman (Hugh Feagin), a man who's apparently quite comfortable with his ethnicity, although he distrusts organized religion and has married a Gentile (Linda Pettigrew). During treatment, Sylvia and Dr. Hyman fall in love -- at least I think that's what happens -- and Phillip has a heart attack but refuses to recuperate in a hospital. During a final, tearful climactic scene of reconciliation, Phillip dies and -- you guessed it -- Sylvia gets up and walks. By this point, ambulatory patrons of Theatre Three are indeed grateful to be able to escape under their own power.

Last year, director Jac Alder co-starred in a play at T3 called Old Wicked Songs that contained buckets of sophistication, pathos, and complexity about The Holocaust and anti-Semitism, especially compared with Broken Glass. Here, he and the cast cannot be credited with anything but revealing just how confused and stunted this shotgun marriage of the personal and political is, although I might add that Terry Vandivort as Phillip wrestles admirably with a role not common to his comic repertoire and emerges with a crisp performance as a man rendered soulless by...well, something really bad involving his identity. Perhaps Arthur Miller has not only become overly familiar with certain subjects but also overly enchanted with the Miller legend: He simply hasn't located the membranes that connect the wriggling, unruly themes that pop out of this script like it was a bait box. It's as though he believes that audiences will take the hook simply because it's Miller with his wizened hands on the pole. Unfortunately, the jagged pieces of Broken Glass aren't any easier to put together than the windows of the besieged German Jewish shopkeepers of the '30s.

 
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