Monday, March 21, 2011

Broken Glass by Arthur Miller

By Joe Straw 

Glass is not, by any stretch of the imagination, strong material.  It comes in all shapes and sizes.  It can be translucent or gives one the protection to observe freely and in a safe environment from a safe distance.  When glass breaks it becomes this event, so unexpected, one is astounded by the cracking and even shattering experience. 

Broken Glass by Arthur Miller is playing at the Pico Playhouse, presented by The West Coast Jewish Theatre, and directed by Elina de Santos.  This is a fascinating play about characters and their motives: but does it provide the audience a shattering experience?

Set in November 1938, as the play goes, Phillip Gellburg (Michael Bofshever) is sitting in his doctor’s office and speaking to the nurse Margaret Hyman (Peggy Dunne) about a problem he is having.  Gellburg, claiming to be Finnish (discounting his Jewish heritage), is as curt as any man can be but he says that it’s his wife who is having the problem. 

Gellburg: She can’t walk.

It seems that for the past nine days, she has lost the feelings in her legs. It’s not polio just a problem for which Gellburg needs reassurance from the doctor that everything will be okay.  It is for this reason he has decided to stop in.  He believes he is a man who leaves no stone unturned.

There must be a reason that Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Burleigh) enters his office wearing his horse riding breeches.  One thinks right off the bat that this is highly unprofessional and not suitable attire for having serious discussion with a patient’s husband.

Gellburg, impatiently, asks for a diagnosis. Dr. Hyman asks Gellburg to wait until he reviews the file. Both Dr. Hyman and Gellburg are opinionated and very disagreeable men.  Gellburg is open to the ways that Dr. Hyman may have in treating her but doesn’t see beyond the glass of Hyman’s insincerity. 

Gellburg is a nasty man possibly because he hasn’t had “relations” with his wife in a very long time and he may have a problem performing at all.  He wears his lack of sex on his sleeves.  He is truly in love with his wife but cannot get beyond the person behind the tinted glass that is his wife.  His character is also dishonest and a most disagreeable person as one could imagine. 

Hyman, on the other hand, is a slightly offbeat character.  He even compares his wife to Gellburg’s wife.

Hyman: … Your wife has a lot of courage; I admire that kind of woman.  My wife is similar.  I like that type. 

Gellburg:  What type to you mean? 

Hyman:  You know – vigorous.

Dr. Hyman has had a relationship with Sylvia’s father so he’s a family acquaintance and clearly has his eyes set on another female conquest, in the name of science, of course. Hymn inquires about their sexual relationship and seems to be titillated so much so that when he leaves and his wife walks in…

Hyman:  Should I tell you what I’d like to do with you?

Margaret:  Tell me, yes, tell me.  And make it wonderful.

Hyman:  We find an island and we strip and go riding on this white horse…

Margaret:  Together.

Hyman:  You in front. 

Margaret:  Naturally.

Hyman:  And then we go swimming…

Margaret:  Harry, that’s lovely.

Hyman:  And I hire this shark to swim very close and we just manage to get out of the water, and we’re so grateful to be alive we fall down on the beach together and…

Margaret:  Sometimes you’re so good.

Meanwhile Sylvia Gellburg (Susan Angelo) and her sister Harriet (Renae Geerlings) are having a discussion about her “paralyzed” legs, her son who is an artillery captain in the army, and Kristallnach (also known as the Night of Broken Glass November 9 – 10th 1938) which she has been reading about in the newspapers.  All these pieces of information are the broken shards of glass in her life and are weighing heavily on her legs.  And whether the problem is physical or mental are questions yet to be explored.

On top of everything else Phillip Gellburg is having problems at work and he’s not doing due diligence on a building that his boss Stanton Case (Lindsey Ginter) wants to pursue.   The trouble gets him into deeper waters and in a position for which he may not recover.

Margaret: - What is it – just new ass all the time?

Hyman:  There’s been nobody for at least ten or twelve years… more!

Margaret Hyman, the doctor’s wife is, for the most part a pleasant person and tries to spread good cheer, but underneath her exterior she is mistrustful of her husband’s pandering and philandering ways.     There are cracks in their relationship. And why shouldn’t she be erring on the side of caution?

Dr. Harry Hyman is as sinister as they come or normal depending on ones perspective.   His fantasy of riding in on a white horse and saving people from their sexual predicaments as if he were a psychiatrist is disingenuous.  But, it’s something he’s willing to give a try.  Although he is not as sinister on the surface, he is on the edge of taking advantage of all he meets under the guise of his scientific work.  Maybe it’s his sexual appetite.  One is not entirely certain but suspects the latter.

“He (Hyman) sits on the bed and draws the cover off her legs, then raises her nightgown.  She (Sylvia) inhales with certain anticipation as he does so.   He feels her toes.”

Hyman:  And look what beautiful legs you have, Sylvia…  Sylvia, you have a strong beautiful body…

Hyman:  Sylvia, listen to me… I haven’t been this moved by a woman in a very long time.

Gellburg: … if Sylvia was a man she could have run the Federal Reserve.

Angelo as Sylvia did not have a clear objective.  The dialogue indicates that she is a very smart woman, but seeing only the performance with mannerisms in the extreme, one only sees the wheels of her wheelchair turning.  She is clearly in love with Dr. Harry Hyman.  She wants him as a doctor and for “other things” but she has this impotent husband (that she clearly does not love) in the way.  The ending gives her a choice that needs to be clearer, otherwise there’s no play and the audience is left feeling very unsatisfied. 

Bofshever as Gellburg was excellent in the role but playing a defensive posture throughout leaves him room for little else including taking responsibility for his assault against his wife. Also, if he needs help, he really needs to find it no matter the cost.  Not to take away from his marvelous performance but to add another dimension.

Dunne, was spectacular as Margaret Hyman.  One was impressed by her ability to look through the thin sheet of glass that is her husband and keep him on the right path.  Tall and dazzling she moved gracefully from scene to scene.

Burleigh, as Dr. Harry Hyman, was comfortable in the role.  What was Dr. Harry Hyman’s objective?  Did he want to cure Sylvia, or sleep with her?  There is another level and something was missed on this particular night.  After all, if you are doing something against character, one must be aware “this is unethical and therefore conflicted that this bridge must not be crossed”.  One really needed to see this in the performance.

Geerlings as Harriet (the spy) did a nice job.  She also has an objective that was not imaginative and needs to be clearer in order for her to succeed in the role.

Ginter as Stanton Case was outstanding.  He was effective in his quiet moments of strength.  He was also someone you didn’t want to cross or call him to task on his unconscious racial bias.

Elina de Santo’s direction is confusing.  It is probably not Arthur Miller’s best work but it is fine nevertheless.  Miller gives a lot of clues as to the characters motives, intentional or subconscious. One always hope the actors are multi-dimensional, but believes there's more to be had in the ways of the characters and their actions.   Focus should be placed on the characters objectives and the directors through line.

Kristallnach seems to be a backdrop to Broken Glass.  It is not necessarily the main focus of the play but something that propels the events in this play to make it historically significant.  This is a very nice idea indeed. 

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