Arthur Miller used to get similar reviews, and if he doesn’t get them any more, chalk that up to diminishing returns. An author whose political philosophizing has often gotten the better of his dramaturgy in recent years, Miller seems determined, in Broken Glass, which is receiving its area premiere at Olney Theater, to discuss issues that even his characters regard as nongermane to their circumstances. In this case, the discussion centers on Nazis, while the problem appears to be sex.
The story concerns Phillip Gellburg (Edward Gero), a humorless, emotionally frozen Brooklyn accountant whose vibrant wife, Sylvia (Brigid Cleary), has been inexplicably stricken with paralysis. The year is 1938, and her doctor (Paul Morella), finding no physical basis for her inability to walk, suggests psychological causes. Was there anything that might have sparked a “hysterical paralysis,” he wonders. Phillip mentions a newspaper item she’d read about Nazis making old men clean Berlin’s sidewalks with toothbrushes. The doctor thinks the cause is probably closer to home. He turns out to be right, but then, so does Phillip.
What follows is a psychological mystery peppered with flashes of Miller’s characteristic eloquence (“My whole life…I gave it away like a couple of pennies; I took better care of my shoes”) but also leavened with banality. As rendered by the author, Sylvia’s problems appear to have at least as much to do with hormones as with politics, while Phillip’s emotional paralysis ends up having such prosaic roots that it’s hard to believe Miller thought revealing them would provide the play with a kicker. The other characters (besides the doctor, there’s Sylvia’s sister, Phillip’s employer, and the doctor’s wife) exist only to prompt the two principals with questions, since noncommunication within the marriage is a big part of the problem.
Jointly staged by Olney’s savvy artistic director Jim Petosa (who is responsible for transforming the theater in the last few seasons from a summer-stock operation into a year-round arts center with gratifyingly serious aspirations) and Halo Wines, Broken Glass has been mounted with a respect and elegance the script doesn’t always deserve. The evening begins with shafts of light illuminating a curved wall of shattered vitreaux windows from within. Interior glass walls, similarly shattered, have been placed by designer Jim Kronzer on a revolve so that there’s an intricate play of leaded glass patterns that shift with every scene change. The effect is haunting, and so evocative of Kristallnacht that for a time you half expect the action to shift to Berlin, which is where the author’s heart seems to be, even as his mind is occupied in Brooklyn.
My own mind, meanwhile, is occupied with a conundrum. How is it that Arena Stage’s riveting Dance of Death still has seats available for its final weekend after garnering nothing but raves from local critics? Did word somehow not get around about JoAnne Akalaitis’ audacious—and very funny—approach to the play? In an age when fifth go-rounds of Cats and Les Miz play to standing-room crowds in 2,000-seat houses, it’s almost shameful to have the first work done locally by a visionary of Akalaitis’ stature play in a comparatively intimate house to any empty seats whatever.
I have theories about why people might be wary: They’re afraid of Strindberg…they worry about the downbeat title…they’re put off by descriptions of the play as a “marriage from hell.” Still, serious theatergoers who’ve hesitated for one of those reasons would be well advised to get over it before the show closes Sunday. The company’s acting is terrific, John Conklin’s set practically a work of art, and Akalaitis’ wittily unorthodox staging will make even unadventurous playgoers feel they understand where an avant-garde production is coming from.
On top of which, the fact that the show still has seats this late in the run offers an additional appeal to the wallet: Half-price same-day tickets available both through TICKETplace (at Lisner Auditorium), and through Arena’s HOTTIX program (90 minutes prior to showtime at the Kreeger Theater box office). With that kind of bargain, why anyone would sit out this Dance is beyond me.CP