There's BROKEN GLASS At Westport Country Playhouse

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

After seeing Arthur Miller’s filmed interview about his numerous manuscript revisions -- currently on view in the lobby of the Westport Country Playhouse -- I was reminded that I have a personal letter from him that also refers to making it as a writer. It is probably considered a historical document by now. I also saw the “working” premiere of “Broken Glass,” directed by John Tillinger, at Long Wharf Theatre in 1994 -- shortly before it made its “official, ” NYC debut at the Booth Theatre. At Long Wharf, Miller, who owned a home in Roxbury, CT, quietly snuck in during the production of his new play. No one else seemed to notice him in the last row but there he was, looking like an aging, college professor in his signature, dark-rimmed glasses, busily taking hand-written notes. The reason I’m relating these incidents is because even award-winning authors can read the same lines a hundred times and still be unsatisfied.

To be perfectly honest, although “Broken Glass” received the Olivier Award for Best New Play, the initial, Long Wharf version was terribly boring and met with a polite reception -- and to this day, it is not considered to be among Arthur Miller’s best works.

“Broken Glass” takes place in Brooklyn during 1938. Sylvia Gellburg, who is emotionally played by Felicity Jones, becomes suddenly paralyzed from the waist down, when she reads the newspapers and identifies with the persecuted, German Jews during Kristallnact (the night of the broken glass). Phillip, an average, middle-class guy, played by Stephen Schnetzer, has no idea why his wife can’t walk. Whatever she tries to express about her fears go in one ear and out the other, as he tries to force her to stand up.

Phillip believes that he has no problems being born Jewish. He has almost forgotten this fact, and can be sarcastic and even anti-Semitic towards his own people. He feels proud because he assimilated into American society and is working for a non-Jewish real estate firm. Besides, his only son is one of the rare Jews attending West Point. What more can one ask for in life? And yet, when Phillip makes a costly, wrong decision about a real estate deal, his guilty, Jewish roots surface, and he falsely accuses his boss of being anti-Semitic. But, Phillip’s biggest secret lies hidden in the bedroom -- right next to his paralyzed wife.

So what is Phillip’s secret? Is there a key to unlock the magic formula? Can he trust Dr. Harry Hyman, a clean-cut professional, played by Stephen Schnetzer, who just happens to be married to a gentile woman and therefore was assimilated automatically? Can the good, Jewish doctor cure two, injured, Jewish spirits and make the couple whole again? And, do you want the truth or the fairytale?

Interestingly, at Westport Country Playhouse “Broken Glass” was almost unrecognizable due to the playwright’s constant revisions and Mark Lamos’ able direction. This time around, we gained more insight to the individual characters and what molded them. However, the main problem with his one-act work still remains. Miller explores too many complex issues at once.

If you can view this play as a modern version of an ancient, Jewish folktale, you might be right. After all, Mark Chagall painted blue-faced fiddlers and floating brides and grooms accompanied by flying farm animals, so why not paint this ancient tale with meaningful words? The truth is, this is one example of a realistic play that the audience might better accept if it was presented in abstract form. For example, “broken glass” can have a lot of different meanings. The sexual inferences in this play can be easily related to the mystical Kabbalah and the Dybbuk -- a wandering spirit that enters the body of a living person in order to possess it. The Nazis could be persecuting the Golem, a vengeful creature made out of clay by an ancient, German Rabbi. The play cries out for someone to unlock the mysterious, underlying fairytale contained in this unusual work, in order for it to make more sense. Otherwise, all we may have is a famous writer’s self-indulgent exercise. Perhaps, I’m wrong, and it’s meant to be Arthur Miller’s “swan song.” In that case, this cruel joke is on the audience.

Felicity Jones, Steven Skybell, Stephen Schnetzer and the supporting actors are all wonderful performers. They give “Broken Glass” their best shot (or broken glasses if you prefer). If that toast is not enough, you can always enjoy Arthur Miller’s clever words, and a bite of his bitter humor -- even if this unbelievable drama is a puzzle to ponder after you get home.

This was a great season for Westport Country Playhouse. As usual, there were a variety of offerings to suit its patrons’ interest. We are looking forward to its 2016 schedule which is listed on its website: www.WestportPlayhouse.org

Plays to October 24 -- Tickets: 203-454-3238

This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” Oct/2015

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