Theater Review - Glass house

Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass has old-fashioned strengths and faults

Playwright Arthur Miller has spent more than half a century writing in his own shadow. His Death of a Salesman is theater’s equivalent to the Great American Novel, yet Miller has never matched that play’s success since its debut in 1949.

Nearing 90 years old, Miller continues to write plays, but has become the kind of artist more appreciated in Europe than in his home country. Miller has too few masterpieces to qualify as America’s greatest living playwright, but he’s definitely our longest-lived great playwright. His 1994 play Broken Glass, having its Southeastern premiere at 7 Stages, puts Miller’s strengths and weaknesses on display. The action takes place in 1938, and the play itself, at once evocative and antiquated, feels like it could have been written then.

Broken Glass begins as Dr. Harry Hyman (Pierre Brulator) meets with Phillip Gellburg (Don Finney) to discuss his wife Sylvia’s baffling ailment. For days, Sylvia Gellburg has been unable to move her legs, but Hyman explains that her doctors can find nothing physically wrong with her, and that she suffers from “hysterical paralysis.” A medical doctor, Hyman has doubts about the value of psychiatry, but investigates Sylvia’s home life and family background.

Early on, Broken Glass unfolds like such psychotherapy mystery plays as Equus or Agnes of God. Sylvia (Shannon Eubanks) reveals two unusual traits. She’s obsessed with newspaper photos about Kristallnacht and the Holocaust and vividly describes an image of Jewish elders forced to clean sidewalks with toothbrushes as jeering crowds look on. She’s upset about the events in Europe, but proves strangely cheerful about her own condition.

Glass puts the Holocaust in the background to focus on the Gellburgs’ marriage, and how the husband may be more disturbed than the wife. Miller’s main theme is Jewish self-loathing, and he frequently sets Hyman and Gellburg in sharp contrast. Both men are Jewish, yet they’re as different as Hyman’s white lab coat and Gellburg’s black suit worn in their first meeting. Hyman is a former ladies’ man with complete comfort in his Jewishness, while Gellburg proves self-conscious and neurotic, an outsider more due to his own temperament than any external anti-Semitism.

In the first scene, Hyman suggests that Gellburg be more affectionate to his wife, which leads to a mix of comedy and poignancy when cold, cranky Gellburg tries to be kind, and Sylvia worries that she’s dying. As the doctor spends more time with Sylvia, however, his treatment becomes more sensual — he admires her legs and makes remarks like, “I want you to send your thoughts into your hips” — until they’re on the verge of falling into each other’s arms.

With Sylvia in her wheelchair and a romantic doctor trying to inspire her cure, Broken Glass at times plays like a throwback to the weepy medical melodramas of the 1930s. Even more oddly, some of costuming suggests the screwball comedies of the era. At one point, Hyman, a horseback rider, arrives at the Gellburgs’ home wearing riding tweeds, boots and a red scarf around his neck. Bart Hansard, as the patrician boss of Gellburg’s office, first appears wearing yachting clothes and a captain’s hat.

Director Joseph Chaikin seems to have mixed feelings for the play’s silver-screen qualities. Some scenes play snappy and cinematic, others more realistic and deeply emotional. He also should draw out the play’s final moment. Some of the most pivotal moments occur in the play’s last seconds, yet the lights go down before the emotional impact has time to sink in.

Eubanks’ performance suits Broken Glass’ old-movie qualities only too well. She makes Sylvia seem so ethereal and entertained by life that she diminishes the characters’ darker qualities and deflects our concerns for the character. Brulator plays against the stereotype of a dashing, aristocratic physician and brings out the character’s working-class background. His rough edges suggest Hyman would be as comfortable carrying a beat cop’s baton as a black medical bag.

Finney conveys both Gellburg’s comic and tragic qualities. At first he’s amusingly obstreperous, and when Hyman’s outgoing wife (Janet Metzger) encourages him to visit her home state of Minnesota, he shrugs, “New York state’s the size of France — what would I go to Minnesota for?” But he becomes an increasingly tortured figure, so suspicious that he’s unable to enjoy life or trust other people.

He brings a sympathetic vulnerability to his scenes at the character’s real estate office, which echo similar moments from Death of a Salesman. Miller hasn’t lost his command of the little details of American office life or his acute sensitivity to its tensions and humiliations.

Yet Salesman itself has stilted dialogue, and Miller still hasn’t shaken that tendency. Metzger’s character gets particularly laden with the most obvious cliches, at one point telling her husband, “You don’t realize how transparent you are. You’re like a plane of glass,” making the title metaphor go thud.

Broken Glass brings insight to the office, insight to marital dynamics and insight to the Jewish question, yet never makes its central medical conundrum very interesting. That part of the play should engage us like one of Dr. Oliver Sachs’ quirky neurological case histories, and not remind us of tear-jerkers like The Other Side of the Mountain.