New Rep starts its new season with a tribute to Arthur Miller, whose hundredth birthday is this year. BROKEN GLASS (playing through Sept. 27th) is Miller’s strange, enigmatic play ostensibly about a Jewish woman in New York with hysterical paralysis. The title refers to Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazis in Germany broke out every window they could find in Jewish stores and shops. Her legs gave out from under her almost immediately upon hearing about events in Europe. (Most Americans at the time shared the opinion that the National Party would not prevail.)
In CABARET, the charming green grocer reassures the landlady he’s wooing that the Nazi threat will blow over. In BENT, the protagonist’s uncle dismisses the trouble as “hooliganism.” Both characters’ grave miscalculations wound us as we watch their stories unfold. It’s a brilliant dramatic device to have us privy to information they don’t have. We despair for them.
In Miller’s overlong, overloaded script, however, the Nazis are discussed so much—or rather, not discussed so often (Both her husband and her doctor, not to mention relatives, tell the stricken woman not to obsess about them) that the shock value is overwhelmed. You wouldn’t think it possible but the power to move us is diluted perhaps because the play is clogged with ideas which don’t find resolution: There’s the paralysis they all share: Bodily paralysis for the wife; paralysis of the soul for the husband and paralysis of the mind for her doctor.
And Miller piles on a bizarre sexual ambiguity for the lot of them. The unorthodox, house calling, (actually bed calling) doctor seems to be seducing his patient as some kind of therapeutic stratagem. (Even his wife is suspicious.) The hyper-sexualized patient is definitely trying to seduce him. The husband is hallucinating (or is he?) his own sexual experience. And just in case we missed the first time, Miller keeps telling us that the wife has a secret… maybe something evil. Maybe there’s a dybbuk but that intriguing prospect goes nowhere.
Speaking of orthodoxy, Miller sets up an examination of American Jewish identity as well. A few of his characters have had a better time of it in his gifted, earlier plays. The husband (reminiscent of Willy Loman) works for a gentile firm where he is the only Jewish employee and his tenuous position depends on sales and mortgages. He has recently failed to deliver on a sale and he fears there will be repercussions. Jeremiah Kissel plays him like an excited time bomb, with every nerve in his body firing at once.
WWII is just around the corner but the family has no way of knowing that, of course, which means their “brilliant” son, now making strides at the military academy, most likely, as in ALL MY SONS, will be sent to the front. Director Jim Petosa purposely (?) elicits arch, almost cinematic performances from the cast, especially from Anne Gottlieb, reminiscent of one of those seductively crazy Hollywood heroines just waiting to be saved (and you know all the men in the movie want to… and they’ll trip over each other to do it.).
There she lies, with her arms yawningly outstretched in her satin nightgown, in the middle of a huge bed center stage like Hedy Lamar, ready for her doctor (Benjamin Evett as her very personal physician). Miller may be trying to make a case for complicity in the Holocaust by dint of denial (Certainly no one in the play pays attention to this Cassandra.) but I couldn’t find a clear path in this maze.