Phillip Gellburg keeps insisting that he worships and adores his wife Sylvia, yet he hasn’t made love to her in more than 20 years. “You gradually give up and it closes over you like a grave,” he says.
Further, he hates the fact that he is Jewish and devotes himself to “passing” for Gentile, yet he asserts, “They will never destroy us. When the last Jew dies, the light of the world will go out.”
This conflicted man is the antihero of Arthur Miller’s 1994 play, “Broken Glass,” now at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles. He is stiff, humorless, and fearful and spends his life berating his wife and cowering to his boss, who continually refers to him as “you people.” Actor Michael Bofshever, however, is able to make him both pitiable and understandable in his anguish and frustration.
His wife Sylvia (Susan Angelo) has no weapons to use in asserting herself. She has suppressed her own personality, submerging her identity in order to be the perfect compatible wife in what has turned out to be a flawed and unhappy marriage. Seething with unresolved resentment, she laments, “I gave away my life.” And in a moment of candor she acknowledges, “There’s nothing I know now that I didn’t know 20 years ago. I just didn’t say it.”
As the play opens, Phillip is consulting Sylvia’s doctor (a charming Stephen Burleigh) about a strange paralysis that she has acquired that seems to have no physical cause. Yet she is unable to move her body from the waist down. Is this her way of punishing him for his years of aloofness and neglect?
Or is she really as obsessed as she appears to be with the hideous events unfolding in Germany? It is 1938, and the newspapers have been reporting on Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” when vandals have erupted throughout Germany to trash synagogues and break the windows of shops owned by Jews.
She is transfixed by pictures of old, bearded Jews, down on their knees, forced by Nazi toughs to scrub Germany’s sidewalks with a toothbrush. The humiliation she feels is tinged with the fear that this kind of brutality against the Jews could be duplicated in America. “To be alive is to be afraid,” the doctor says. “We are born afraid. It’s how we deal with it that counts.”
“Broken Glass” is filled with Arthur Miller’s consistent themes: identity (and/or the loss of it), personal responsibility, and forgiveness. All three are powerfully rendered and, under Elina de Santos’ strong direction, emotionally gripping.
The action falters a bit, however, as the play is slowed down by repetition. Sylvia expresses her torment too many times over the old men cleaning the sidewalks with toothbrushes; Phillip strives to explain himself (and apologize) to everyone in sight. “Why are you so cut off from yourself?” the doctor asks him, provoking yet another explanation. Even though it’s considered a major sin to tamper with a playwright’s work (especially one as acclaimed as Arthur Miller), a little tightening wouldn’t hurt.
Otherwise, the play is enhanced by its three additional characters: Lindsey Ginter as Phillip’s subtly menacing boss, Peggy Dunne as the doctor’s supportive wife, and Renae Geerlings as Sylvia’s concerned sister.
Scenic designer Erin Brewster has put together a minimal amount of rather boring furniture to represent the offices of the doctor and of Phillip’s boss, as well as the bedroom in which Sylvia languishes. Leigh Allen differentiates between the settings with an effective lighting design, and Melanie Watnick has deftly revealed the personalities of the various characters with her appropriate costume designs.
“Broken Glass” is no “Death of a Salesman” (what play is?), but it’s definitely worth seeing. Arthur Miller always has a lot to say, and he says it better than almost anybody else.
“Broken Glass,” produced by the West Coast Jewish Theatre, will continue Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 17 at Pico Playhouse, 10580 Pico Blvd., in Los Angeles. Call (323) 821-2449 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.