Set in Brooklyn in 1938, Arthur Miller’s late play, Broken Glass, is a story of racial fear and identity in a world on the brink of war, but Iqbal Khan’s production loses much of its power through heavy handed direction and performances that veer constantly towards the shrill.
Anthony Sher is Phillip Gellburg, a man whose deep ambivalence towards his Judaism is reflected in his acceptance of the casual racism of his employers and a contorted mix of self-loathing and pride in both his and his son’s achievements in a Gentile world. Tara Fitzgerald is his tormented wife Sylvia, who reacts to their unhappy, sexless marriage and her increasing obsession with the mistreatment of Berlin’s Jews in the horrific events of Kristallnacht with a bout of hysterical paralysis, losing the use of her legs. Despite the attempts of both her husband and doctor – a man whose welcome attentions go beyond the strictly medical – Sylvia clings to her self-inflicted disability, which becomes a catalyst for the breakdown of both her marriage and, eventually, her husband as well.
While the racial themes it addresses remain relevant, Broken Glass feels tremendously dated – despite being written in the 1990s – and lacks Miller’s usual linguistic deftness. There are flashes of both humour and genuine drama, but not enough of them, and the play is fatally hampered by its cast of deeply unlikeable characters, none of whom are helped by the grating ‘Noo Yoik’ accents adopted throughout.
Sher’s restless, twitching, performance is more irritating than affecting, and Gellburg’s crisis, when it comes, feels vaguely ridiculous; besides which, it is hard to conjure any sympathy for a petty-minded bully who takes his frustrations out on his spouse and only realises his folly when it is far too late. As his wife, Fitzgerald also strays too often into melodrama, and while one should feel sorry for a woman trapped in misery by societal convention, she is a very hard woman to like. While there is never any suggestion that her distress at events in Germany is less than real, there is ultimately something quite despicable about a woman whose reaction to the genuine tragedy of others is to take herself off to her bed. Miller may be trying to make a point about the internalization of prejudice, but instead it feels like self-indulgence of the highest order.
As the couple’s long suffering doctor, Stanley Townsend brings a steady calm and a rational head to the proceedings, even if his own behaviour is called into doubt, while Caroline Loncq is fine as his brassy wife, though like the equally competent Suzan Sylvester (as Sylvia’s younger sister, Harriet), she isn’t given a great deal to work with. Brian Protheroe’s Stanton Case, meanwhile, seems to have wandered in from the Mad Men set, with little to do but look WASP-y and detached.
Khan’s direction seems to struggle with the tone of the piece – there are far too many shouting matches, and too many scenes descend into almost-hysteria, and the conceit of having a cellist visible behind the stage, her sombre (albeit beautiful) music marking the scenes, quickly becomes a wearing distraction. However Mike Britton’s set is pleasingly sparse, its scabrous, mottled walls calling to mind a decaying institution, a fitting backdrop to the disintegration of the characters. Ultimately this is an unsatisfying production of an unsatisfying play, lacking the resonance or substance of Miller’s better known works.