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Broken Glass

National Jewish Theater

Subtlety has never been Arthur Miller's strong suit. Even at his most inspired he could sometimes seem a Torah-thumping Sunday-school teacher. Despite the magical artistry of plays like The Crucible and The Price, one could still feel occasionally the suffocating presence of Miller the Wise, tallith wrapped around his shoulders, pointer in hand, with a lesson to impart to the already converted.

Broken Glass is the 80-year-old Miller's latest opus, a bold effort to reclaim his role as social conscience of the American theater: this is the playwright at his most didactic. Admittedly the script is powerful and heartfelt, Miller's most skillful writing in decades. But that's not saying much, given that during the last 25 years or so Miller has churned out hackneyed drivel on the order of The Creation of the World and Other Business and the incoherent film script for Everybody Wins. This effort may indeed signal Miller's return to writing thought-provoking plays, but Broken Glass assuredly is not the return to form that some critics have called it. In virtually every passage one hears Miller's strident voice, struggling to express something that used to come naturally.

Set in Brooklyn in 1938, around the time of Kristallnacht in Germany, Broken Glass concerns physical and emotional paralysis in the face of unspeakable cruelty. At the center of the play are Phillip Gellburg, a self-loathing Jewish businessman who's made every effort to deny his heritage, and his miserable wife Sylvia, who's become paralyzed from the waist down after reading stories of Nazi atrocities in the New York Times. Ostensibly about Sylvia's attempts to overcome her psychosomatic disability and the psychological effects of the rise of Nazism, Broken Glass also addresses the smaller, more private emotional holocausts that occur in families.

Sylvia's paralysis is also the product of her loveless marriage to the coldhearted, impotent Phillip, who's robbed her of her youth and left her emotionally incapacitated. Phillip's intense self-hatred and emotional difficulties wreak tragic physical revenge on his body as a life of self-denial leads to heart failure. Phillip and Sylvia look at their doomed marriage like horrified spectators at an accident: they can see what's coming but are powerless to stop it. In the same way Americans could do nothing to reverse the actions of Adolf Hitler.

The source of Miller's story appears to be the fact that during the Holocaust some American Jews began to suffer from paralysis without any apparent physiological cause. This in itself is enough to make Broken Glass an interesting piece of theater, but the play loses some of its impact because Miller tends to speechify and set up straw men rather than delve into his characters. Like the morality plays of old, Broken Glass doesn't give us three-dimensional people so much as allegorical types. It isn't enough for Miller to make Phillip ashamed of his Judaism--no, he has to be a stiff prig who votes Republican, sends his son off to West Point to become the first Jewish general, refuses to sympathize with Jewish refugees because he thinks they brought the actions of Nazi goons upon themselves, and gets pissed when people call him "Goldberg" instead of "Gellburg." It's not enough for Miller that Phillip's boss, Stanton Case, is an anti-Semitic gentile--no, he's got to be the quintessential cartoon goy who has a yacht, wears boat shoes, drinks brandy out of a snifter, and calls Jews, in the best Ross Perot tradition, "you people." At least Sylvia's sweet, handsome doctor, who helps revive her long-dormant sexuality as he pleads with her to walk, is an acceptable if somewhat sexist plot device. But does Miller have to play the crass punster, naming him Dr. Harry Hyman, and have Phillip tell the doctor of Sylvia's youth and purity by saying, "I worshiped her, Hyman, from the moment I laid eyes on her."

Worse still is Miller's tendency to restate and overstate the obvious. He seems fond of the question "What are you talking about?," using it whenever he feels he hasn't made a point adequately and wants a character to drive it home. In his effort to address the issues, Miller creates implausibilities. What Jew in 1938 would have asked her sister, as Sylvia's sister does in this play, "Why are you so interested in [the situation in Germany]? What business is that of yours?" By the play's melodramatic conclusion even Miller seems tired of his own repetitiousness, rushing to a shocking blackout rather than building to an earned climax.

These glaring flaws are indeed disappointing, because snatches of dialogue and intense drama suggest that flickers of Miller's brilliance remain. Subpar Miller is better than none at all, and even at their weakest his works still function on an intellectual plane way above 90 percent of current theater. But Broken Glass is more a sermon than a play, and even the best-written sermons get tiresome.

National Jewish Theater, under the deft direction of Susan Padveen, does a stunning job of inflating even the flattest of Miller's speeches. All the performers are highly competent professionals, but Lisa Dodson's fiercely sympathetic take on the emotionally and physically crippled Sylvia is especially intelligent, moving, and believable. But perhaps the best performances are those by cellists Ingrid Krizan and Lucy Nelson, whose doleful incidental music speaks more precisely to the issues of desperation and emotional alienation than virtually anything in Miller's script.

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