Broken Glass

Philadelphia Theatre Company, at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St., through Mar. 31, 735-0631.

I didn't see Arthur Miller's new play, Broken Glass, when it opened in New York (to mixed reviews) a few years ago, nor when it was produced in London (to spectacular reviews and prestigious awards) last year, but I had heard a few things about it.

I had heard that it was set in Brooklyn in 1938 during the days after Kristallnacht in Germany (hence the broken glass of the title). And I'd heard that there were two principal characters: Sylvia, an American Jewish woman who had been seized with hysterical paralysis in her legs after reading in the newspapers about elderly Jews being forced by the Nazis to scrub the sidewalks with toothbrushes on the Kurfrstendamm in Berlin, and her husband Phillip, a successful mortgage banker, who had de-ethnicized his name (Goldberg to Gellburg), and was navigating the gentile business world with a combination of crippling shame and inordinate pride about his ethnic identity.

What a wonderful, complex and potentially meaningful Milleresque situation! What I didn't know about the play was that, knowing what I knew, I knew almost all there was to know about the play.

For Broken Glass has little action, little suspense, very little revelation of character beyond what we can already figure out about them for ourselves, and precious little to say about it all, even though it spends huge lengths of its time, and ours, saying it.

Broken Glass is structured as a whodunnit, with a benevolent (and ethnically unconflicted) Jewish doctor trying to find out the source of Sylvia's paralysis, on the hunch that it may have something to do with Kristallnacht, something to do with the Gellburgs' marriage (the doctor and the playwright are both Freudians), and something to do with Phillip's sense of his Jewish identity.

We need no general practitioner come from Ocean Parkway via Heidelberg Medical School to tell us this. And so the only mystery to drive the whodunnit structure of the play is the mystery of what kind of play Miller really is writing. Is the play really about American Jewish identity (a theme which Miller has treated occasionally, if often only indirectly, every other decade or so), or about the responsibility we share for events that happen beyond our property line (a theme that Miller treats admirably and incessantly)? Or (I almost forget to mention it) is it a play about marriage and sex (remember Freud?)?

Since the characters serve more as mouthpieces for social and ethnic positions and as engines of the generic whodunnit, and less as characters with genuinely interesting searches of their own, the actors don't fare too well in the otherwise slick production at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. Robin Groves has some emotional depth as Sylvia, though almost all of her depth is on the surface. This is in part because director Richard Corley has neither the light hand to undercut the melodrama nor the courage to play it full out, and so Sylvia's narrative of her suddenly remembered recurring nightmare just flits by. Edmond Genest never lets us near enough to Phillip for us to care about him, despite his increasing centrality in the play's action. And poor Paul Meshejian, as the doctor, is left with the unenviable task of driving the play's flaccid whodunnit energies.

The only surprise in the play comes when the whodunnit is solved and we finally find out what type of play Broken Glass really is.

Despite the plaintive Hebraic cello music that bridges the scenes, despite the wall of pre-Holocaust sepia photographs at the rear of Debra Booth's set (a visual quotation of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC), it turns out that Broken Glass is effectively not about the Holocaust at all. Our responsibility to one another evidently does end at our property lines. Sylvia's problem turns out to be Phillip. Phillip's problem turns out to be the problem of his own crippling self-victimization. And, the doctor explains, even Hitler is crippled by self-victimization, and, as a result, "has turned his whole beautiful country into one gigantic kvetch."

This must be the most vapid thing that Miller has written about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust since the French Captain says "We are all Jews" at the end of Incident at Vichy. The playwright has turned the whole horrifying subject into one gigantic kvetch.

If you are a Holocaust survivor, my advice to you is: don't buy a ticket to Broken Glass. If you already have one, give it away -- and not to a friend.