Saturday, November 10, 2012

Redtwist Rendition of Arthur Miller's 'Broken Glass' Worthwhile but Not Quite Shattering -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Broken Glass
a play by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Colucci
& Jan Ellen Graves
Redtwist Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 18

There is no playwright whose work I have liked more, or more consistently, than Arthur Miller.

Beyond his acknowledged masterpieces—Death of a Salesman, All My Sons and The Crucible, written (and/or first staged) between 1947-53—I have found great depth and meaning in three of his 60’s plays: After the Fall, Incident at Vichy and The Price.

Other than seeing—and liking but not loving—his last play, Finishing the Picture, when it debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2004, I had heretofore not seen any of Miller’s later works. According to Wikipedia, he wrote at least a dozen plays after 65th birthday in 1980.

Some of these were seemingly never produced, but Broken Glass ran on Broadway in 1994 (though not for long) and received a Tony nomination.  It had a more successful original run in London, where it received the Olivier Award for Best New Play.

The show has been staged twice previously by the Chicago theater troupe now known as Redtwist, whose work I’ve often liked (including a fine version of All My Sons). With the current production getting some good notices, I decided to check it out for just $12.50 on HotTix.

What makes Miller’s masterpieces so good is that while they feature plot lines that are compelling at face value, they also serve as pointed (and often poignant) allegories, with significance and resonance far beyond what is seen on-stage (or on the page).

Based on my first encounter with Broken Glass, written (or at least finished) when Miller was 79, it certainly seems like a worthwhile play by a writer who still had something substantive to say, but fails—both on the surface and metaphorically—to scale the heights of his more legendary works.

And while Redtwist’s production was well-crafted and well-acted, it too felt a bit lesser than some other works I’ve seen there, notably their superb takes on two Martin McDonagh plays (The Pillowman and The Cripple of Inishmaan).

Based in Brooklyn in 1938, Broken Glass is so titled in reference to Kristallnacht, the tragic “Night of Broken Glass” that saw Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues destroyed in Germany, leaving streets strewn with broken glass.

Kristallnacht is now seen as one of the most chilling precursors to the Holocaust, but my understanding is that at the time many American Jews, such as the play’s Phillip Gellburg (played by Neal Grofman), failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation under Hitler prior to the invasion of Poland, if even then. As with most everything in Miller's oeuvre, the name Gellburg is symbolic, as Phillip--who is rather aloof about his religious identity--bristles when it is confused with "Goldberg."

This mass obviousness—or self-imposed powerlessness—to Hitler's atrocities is metaphorically embodied in Broken Glass by Phillip’s wife, Sylvia (a fine Jacqueline Grandt), who has lost the use of her legs, albeit for no physiological reason. The doctor Phillip enlists, Harry Hyman (Michael Colucci), suspects that Sylvia’s paralysis may have been prompted by her concern for the German Jews and/or her somewhat strained relationship with Phillip. I won’t reveal much more of the plotline, but questions arise regarding the couple’s sexual relations, as well as Dr. Hyman’s somewhat ulterior motives for his course of treatment.

The play also weaves in Phillip’s interaction with his WASPish boss in a Wall Street firm (played with proper smarm by Mike Nowak), as well as Dr. Hyman’s wife Margaret (a charming Susan Fay) and Sylvia’s sister Harriet (Robyn Okrant). Perhaps this is a function of Redtwist’s well-utilized but nonetheless intimate storefront space, but it sometimes felt like there were more characters than necessary (though there are only 6).

While Grofman (reprising the role he played in 2004, as is Grandt) was very good as Phillip, my sense that he would perfectly embody Willy Loman (from Miller’s masterful Death of a Salesman) perhaps earned him greater empathy than his more abrasively pathetic character deserved.

And while Redtwist artistic director Michael Colucci, who is directing Broken Glass for the third time (this time in tandem with wife Jan Ellen Graves), obviously has deep familiarity with Miller’s play, I couldn’t help but feel that his portrayal of Dr. Hyman wasn’t quite on the mark. Although Colucci is a skilled actor I’ve seen previously at Redtwist, he seemed to play Hyman more like a ’70 television detective rather than a Jewish doctor in Brooklyn in the late 1930s. And though the character was supposed to have feelings for Sylvia, there was no apparent chemistry between Grandt and Colucci, making that part of the drama fall flat. 

None of which is to suggest that there wasn’t considerable quality work being done by the actors, directors and crew in enacting a fine if not fantastic piece. I’m glad I’ve now seen another Arthur Miller play, even if I didn’t expect to be among his very best going in and had that expectation confirmed.

Still, second rate Miller still has plenty of merits, and if you’re looking for a good play to see—especially in a true Chicago storefront theater—you wouldn’t go wrong with this one. But if you don’t get around to seeing Broken Glass, you needn’t be shattered. 

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